Author Archives: Gip Plaster

Pledge Drives Are Disingenuous: Two Reasons I No Longer Donate To Public Television

For several years, I donated a few dollars every month to a local public television station. I loyally watched the British comedies and some other programs it broadcast, and I decided to donate because I benefited from the station’s services.

I no longer donate to public television, and there are two primary reasons I made this choice. Do you agree with my reasons? Should you?

I hope these points give you something to think about if you’re considering giving some of your hard-earned funds to support public television.

Here are the two reasons I no longer donate:

1. Public television is no longer in line with my values.

I don’t mean that the public television agenda is too liberal for me or that it promotes causes with which I don’t agree. I mean that I no longer live the kind of life where something as unimportant as television plays a major role.

My simple, deliberate life isn’t as restrictive as the lives of some who chose the simple path. I watch TV when it appeals to me, and I do so unapologetically. But it’s not very important to me. If it disappeared from my life, my life wouldn’t be any less compelling or complete.

TV is, at best, something about which I’m ambivalent now, not something that I want to support with my money.

Besides, most of what I watch on my television screen these days is on DVD, not broadcast on public television. So it’s just not that important.

2. Because of the way pledge drives are handled, public television often doesn’t do what it usually does.

Public television pledge drives are more frequent than ever before, and they’re handled is more intrusive — and less interesting.

On KERA, the public television station that serves North Texas, pledge breaks are no longer centered around regular programming and haven’t been in many years. They’re based around specials that attract a different, wealthier audience than the station’s regular programming. And increasingly, these programs are highly targeted health or self-help programs aimed at a very narrow but statistically significant group of givers

There are specials aimed at people with arthritis, programs for people with memory problems and things about hormones I don’t want to understand. There are special cooking pledge programs and shows aimed at teaching people to play hack piano. And of course, there are all those classic music specials.

These pledge programs focus on older people because old people are perceived to have more money to give away. But I think it’s disingenuous of public television stations to prey on older citizens for their money, then return when the money is secured to children’s programming and home repair shows.

I still watch public television when my local station offers something I want to see, but it offers fewer quality programs and I watch less TV than ever, so I find myself watching it less and less.

Still, I like the idea of public television in theory. And I suppose I’m glad it’s there to offer an alternative voice — a voice that is less influenced by advertisers, even if it is biased at times in favor of other groups with money.

Public TV is nice to have around. It’s just not an idea I care to support anymore.

Sure, I’ll Talk To You About Discontinued Deodorants

Want to have a conversation about all the brands of deodorant that have recently been discontinued or reduced in size? Sure, I’m up for that. But there was a time when I would have been very uncomfortable with that topic.

I think I was born with a misplaced or overactive propriety gene, but it’s effect on my personality has slowly been softening. I once shied away from any conversations about personal grooming, unpleasant bodily smells and other seemingly unseemly things.

In some circles, my aversion was enough to limit my ability to participate in the conversation. You have friends like that too, don’t you?

Today, no topic is off limits to me.

Why This Comes To Mind

Deodorants are on my mind because mine has been discontinued — as far as I can tell. I can’t find absolute confirmation that Arrid Extra Dry Clear Gel has been discontinued, but I’ve seen lots of evidence. A few people are talking about it online, and the product has disappeared from local Walmart stores and everywhere else I’ve checked.

There is apparently some major realigning of deodorants and the way they’re sold, and I’m caught u

p in it. The product I’ve used for more than decade is gone. And I would grieve for it if I didn’t have other things to do.

I’ve seen articles indicating that homemade deodorant is the way to go, but I’m just not ready for that. I’m not likely to smear on a cream deodorant either.

Signs Of Greater Ease

You may find this a mundane topic — and you may even find it slightly uncomfortable to read about deodorants. For me, however, this is a big step.

When I was a kid, I wouldn’t have entered into any kind of discussion related to personal grooming. It’s not that I found it embarrassing exactly, it’s just that I didn’t want people thinking about what products may or may not have been on my body at any given moment. Discussing foot powders, colognes and ointments was out of the question for me too.

Today, I’m fine with all of that. I think it’s a sign of greater ease with myself. I don’t know that I use the same products you do, but I’m relatively confident that no one is judging me for using one brand instead of another.

And even if you are, I just don’t care what you think. That may sound harsh, but this post wouldn’t have been possible if I still worried about people judging me.

In fact, most of my life wouldn’t have been.

Referring To Companies As “It”, Not “They” May Explain A Lot

As I was finishing up my post about Sweet Tomatoes specifically, buffet restaurants in general and my not-so-fond memories about how I used to live, I realized something. It explains a lot about why I feel so strongly that we’re eating ourselves into despair.

Toward the end of that post, I wrote this sentence: “I won’t be visiting Sweet Tomatoes again, and I unsubscribed for the company’s email list and unliked its Facebook page.”

Actually, I first wrote that I “unsubscribed from their email list and unliked their Facebook page”. Then I remembered that according to most writing style manuals used in the United States, companies should be referred to in the singular rather than the plural.

I always want companies to be plural, perhaps, because I watch too much British television. Or perhaps I want companies to be plural because I like the idea that there are real people running them.

When you refer to a company in the singular (“its Facebook page”, for example), you suggest that the company is an entity of its own. Referring to a company in the plural (“their Facebook page”), suggests to readers that the company is

made up of a collection of real people. Don’t all companies have real people behind them somewhere?

This could explain my dissatisfaction with the way many of us eat. When every item we consume comes from a faceless corporation with no one apparently representing it, how can we feel any real connection to the source, quality or healthfulness of the product? There are people involved in our food production at every level — even if machines are doing much of the work.

If I were running a food company, I’d rather be mistaken for a “they” than considered an “it”, I think. I’d like people to understand that a collection of real people are really responsible for what my company puts out. Wouldn’t you?

In fact, the world might be better than it already is if we would recognized the people behind and within every company, organization or process in which we become involved. We might feel more connection, more empathy and more respect.

We might even all get along. But perhaps that’s too grand a point to make in a simple post about an interesting little grammar rule that few people follow.

Mock Chicken-Fried Steak For The 21st Century

More than 20 years ago when we got our first apartment, I didn’t really know how to cook anything. We ate out much more than we could afford, but I also quickly learned to make some simple dishes.

Even though I’ve watched thousands of cooking shows and experimented with hundreds of dishes since then, I still prefer simple, elegant meals to complex ones that require a long list of ingredients.

Sometime during that first year in Fort Worth, a friend gave me a recipe for a dish he had made for us: Mock Chicken-Fried Steak. Essentially, it’s a meatloaf served under cream gravy — and it’s delicious. The recipe he gave me was printed on a dot-matrix printer on a piece of that paper with the invisible perforations along the edges. It was one of the ugliest pieces of printed material I’ve ever owned, apparently spewed from some recipe-organizing software that was more concerned with function than form.

I lost that piece of paper years ago, but something compelled me to make Mock Chicken-Fried Steak again recently. I recreated the experience using more modern sensibilities, reducing the ingredients list, making portions smaller and carefully considering just how much gravy I wanted to put over my piece when I served it.

Here’s the new recipe I created:

Mock Chicken-Fried Steak For The 21st Century

1 pound 85/15 ground beef

1 egg, slightly beaten

9 saltine crackers, coarsely crushed

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon parsley flakes

1 teaspoon seasoned salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

Place ground beef into a mixing bowl and add the egg. Add the coarsely crushed crackers and the seasoning, then mix with your hands until just combined. Shape into six patties, then cook like burgers in a skillet with a little oil.

If you like cream gravy, make your favorite recipe for it with the pan drippings — or better yet, buy a package of Pioneer mix. That’s what I did. Cream gravy is essentially hot milk or cream thickened with cooked flour and pan drippings, then seasoned with plenty of salt and pepper. The French might call it a béchamel sauce.

I don’t remember the original recipe exactly, but I know I changed three things about it:

  • First, it originally made only four patties, but I prefer smaller portion sizes of meat now.
  • Second, it originally included Worcestershire sauce, but I don’t keep any around, so I omitted it. You could add some soy sauce, I suppose, or some steak sauce.
  • Third, the original recipe called for frying the patties in an inch or so of oil, but I don’t see why that’s necessary. Even using only a couple tablespoons of oil, the mock steaks came out just fine.

In fact, my new mock steak recipe is exactly like the one I lost, as far as I can remember. And it doesn’t require frying in a pan full of oil or buying a number of ingredients that I don’t keep in the house.

So go ahead. When you’re feeling decadent, give this modern mock chicken-fried steak recipe a try. It’s not a gourmet recipe, as you can see, but it reminds me of my past. Whether it will remind you of chicken-fried steak is another matter entirely.

Need A Best Buy Email Address? This Might Work For You

If you think Best Buy doesn’t offer customer service by email, you’re wrong. But the company doesn’t make it easy for you. I solved my problem with the company after I finally located a Best Buy email address that works.

At least it worked for me. I’ll tell you how I reached them — and maybe it will work for you too.

My Best Buy Complaint

My problem with Best Buy was very straightforward, but it took six weeks to resolve — and I resolved it by email.

In November 2012, I ordered a $10 MetroPCS By-The-Minute plan card. I’ve ordered these from the company several times since this kind of card was previously unavailable locally. And because I have so much built-up credit on my cell phone, I don’t need the $20 card that’s available at Walmart. (You can now get the $10 card at some MetroPCS corporate stores.)

What was my complaint? I ordered the card and didn’t get it.

You don’t get an actual card, but your supposed to get a code by email within a few minutes — and I didn’t get it. It should be a simple matter to look up the code on the Best Buy website or click a button to ask that the code be resent, but those options aren’t available. Once a code is lost in space, it’s gone forever.

Frustrated that there was no email address for Best Buy listed on their site, I called the 800 number. The representative said this kind of issue is handled by a special department, but his attempts to transfer me failed because that department didn’t answer.

There was nothing more he could do for me. My time explaining the problem and waiting on hold was wasted.

Toward A Best Buy Email Address

I searched the Internet for an email addresses for Best Buy and found a couple. They didn’t work.

So I took another approach. I explained my complaint on the Best Buy Facebook page. (To do that yourself, “like” Best Buy at www.facebook.com/bestbuy— then write on their wall. It won’t do any good to write on your own wall.)

To my surprise, someone from the company responded almost immediately — telling me to email them with the details. What email address did they give me? This is what you’ve been waiting for:

facebook@bestbuy.com

I got no immediately response, but after a couple of weeks someone answered. The representative asked for my order information and confirmed that I still hadn’t gotten the code. She also offered a $15 gift card as compensation for my trouble.

I explained that their failure actually cost me an addition $10 since I had to go to Walmart and buy a $20 card when I only needed a $10 card, but that argument wasn’t successful in getting me any additional compensation. She requested a mailing address — not an email address — for the $15 gift card, perhaps because she doesn’t trust the company’s email system either.

It was another couple of weeks after I responded to the Best Buy representative I reached through facebook@bestbuy.com before I got a confirmation and a notice that the charge on my credit card has been reversed. Several days later, I finally got the gift card in the mail.

It took more than six weeks to resolve my Best Buy complaint by email, but since the telephone customer service representative couldn’t help me and didn’t offer any alternatives, what choice did I have but to look for another solution?

Final Thoughts

If this approach hadn’t worked, I planned to contest the charge with my credit card company and let their reps handle Best Buy for me.

By the way, I used the $15 card to buy my January phone card, and I got the code in my email within a few minutes. So there’s hope if you have a problem with Best Buy, but don’t expect a quick resolution or to be able to handle the situation with one simple email as you can with so many other company.

Why doesn’t Best Buy publish an email address? Maybe someone from the company will see this post and respond. But I doubt it. The company doesn’t seem to be Internet savvy.

Still, I’ll post a link on their Facebook page.

Making Rice In A Crock-Pot: The Slow Cooker Rice Recipe You’ll Want To Try

I don’t have a rice cooker. I just don’t like the idea of a single-purpose machine cluttering up my home. Besides, I’ve always made instant rice, and I can handle that simple task in the microwave in five minutes. Who needs any other kind of rice?

Then, I discovered that jasmine rice tastes so much better than that instant stuff — and has a much better texture too.

When I learned that you can make perfect rice in a Crock-Pot in just a couple of hours, I was sold on the idea. You see, I often make pork or beef roast in my slow cooker — and it’s the best way to make pinto beans or black-eyed peas. But I don’t use the machine nearly as often as I should.

Based on some recipes I found online and tweaked to work even more perfectly, here’s how to make rice in a Crock-Pot:

Easiest-Ever Slow Cooker Rice

2 cups jasmine rice
3 1/3 cups water

Add rice and water to the slow cooker and stir. Cook one and a half hours on high, stirring at least once or twice during the cooking time.

Rice should be fluffy and just done when the cooking time is complete, but it will become stickier as it sits in the slow cooker (off or on warm) waiting for serving time.

Note that stirring when you first add the rice and water to the Crock-Pot and stirring at least once along the way are crucial to the success of this recipe. Also note that I don’t add any salt. Once you’ve experienced rice without salt, you’ll develop a whole new appreciation for the taste of it.

This will probably be exactly like the steamed rice you find at your neighborhood Chinese buffet — and better in taste and texture than you’ll get from most rice cookers.

You can make any other kind of long-grain rice the same way. Brown rice will work too, although you might need to increase the cooking time.

The rice from this recipe is perfect for making fried rice. Just heat some sesame oil in a skillet, then add the rice along with some garlic powder and ginger powder and season with soy sauce. Add leftover or frozen mixed veggies, any cooked meats you have sitting around and even a scrambled egg if you want. (Reheat the meats and veggies in the same skillet before cooking the rice if you want, and scramble an egg in advance in the skillet too.) Nothing makes a better quick-and-easy lunch than some leftovers turned into a flavorful fried rice.

Extra slow cooker rice can be frozen and reheated in the microwave. Just add a couple of tablespoons of water to the bowl or container when reheating so the rice will steam back to life.

Who knew making rice in a slow cooker was so easy? If I’d known this years ago, I would have never bothered with that instant stuff.

Sweet Tomatoes And Other Buffets Depress Me Too

I’m generally a very happy person these days, but the quality and quantity of food we eat does make me sick at times.

When I wrote a few weeks ago about Why Trader Joe’s Depresses Me, I also had another depressing food experience in mind. We recently visited the Fort Worth location of Sweet Tomatoes, an all-you-can-eat soup, salad and bakery place that we had visited at other locations before.

The food when we visited for an early dinner a few weeks ago was dried out, stuck to its serving utensils, overflowing from its containers and generally looking terrible from lack of care and attention. But never mind that the quality and presentation at this location was inferior to the others we had visited, it was the experience in general that bothered me.

We once frequently visited buffets and other all-you-can-eat restaurants, and I often ate way too much. While I’m sure Sweet Tomatoes — which focuses on salad and soup and offers no entrees and few meat choices — would object to be lumped in with other buffets, it’s still an accurate term for this chain that serves big bowls of sloppiness rather than carefully prepared portions of whole foods.

We had visited looking a rare treat, the kind of high-end experience we had found at the chain before. What I got was a stomach ache and strong sense that even being in the place was a betrayal of my commitment to simple living.

Although few people were in the restaurant when we visited, the ones who dined near us reminded me of the overweight, undereducated people I remember from my years of buffet dining.

I was upset about the high price (although I didn’t pay), upset about the low quality, upset about the old memories and especially upset that visiting had been my idea. My stomach felt like I remembered it used to feel every day, my brain seemed less sharp and my head ached.

I was overfed on low-quality food, and I was depressed.

As I said in my post a few weeks ago, we deserve better than what we’re getting. We deserve good food made by people who care, and that means we deserve food prepared in our homes by hands that serve us with care and compassion.

This post isn’t about Sweet Tomatoes or any other buffet chain. It’s about how sad our way of dealing with food makes me.

I won’t be visiting Sweet Tomatoes again, so I unsubscribed from the company’s email list and unliked its Facebook page.

That company is no longer part of my life, and I’m a better person because I’ve moved on.

Recycled Books In Denton, Texas Hangs On, But…

I was about to say that bookstores around here are dropping like flies, but I don’t see many flies anymore — and there aren’t many bookstores left to drop in the Dallas /Fort Worth area.

Surely the largest and most well-known of the remaining independent bookstores in Texas is Recycled Books, housed in a large light purple semi-historic building on the courthouse square in Denton, Texas. Despite the failure of many independent bookstores in recent years, it hangs on.

But why? I can’t imagine that the store could be profitable, and it’s hard to see how the dilapidated building can hold together under the weight of all those books for much longer.

I visited Recycled Books on September 4 for the first time in at least a year. Or maybe it’s been a couple of years since I stepped through that old glass door. Time flies when you’re out in the fresh air rather than in a stale old bookstore.

A few things have changed in the multi-floor, multi-room space since I was there last, but the general vibe is still the same: old-fashioned, quaint, tired and somehow still a bit inspiring.

Since I made my living selling books online for several years and still move a few volumes when I can find some worth selling, bookstores have a special place in my heart. I used to spend lots of time in Half Price Books locations around the state, and I watched as they changed from quaint and fun to corporate-chic and soulless. That chain is based here in the Metroplex and has been a part of my life for at least two decades, but it’s declining as a place of interest for me.

I can see that Recycled Books is declining too. The first thing that caught my attention was the stench when I walked in the front door. It used to smell old and used, but now it smells moldy, damp and unsanitary.

As I looked around the place, I noticed that a particularly nice little room at the back of the shop with a window that looked out over the town had been closed off. Was the weight of the books too much for it? Did the leaky roof finally cave in? Did the owners need the space for something else? I didn’t ask, but it was a disappointment to see a part of the store unavailable.

In the huge basement, the stench was unbearable. I managed only a brief walk through this subterranean dump ground before I had to move back into the relatively cleaner air upstairs. While I was down there, however, I noticed that many metal shelves had been added since I was down there last, making it more difficult to navigate and a bit less interesting to explore. Is the store still selling books or has it turned to only collecting them?

I also noticed that some doorways seems to sag or twist more than when I last visited, and some floors squeaked in new places and slanted more than I remember. I concluded that the old girl isn’t just showing her age, she’s falling down. I wondered if it was even safe to be in there anymore. What will have to happen before the building is condemned?

Still, though, the dedication of the store’s owners and the idea of an archive for antiquated printed information is a bit inspiring. Like libraries, bookstores aren’t really necessary anymore, but I admire those who maintain them against the odds.

I’m inspired by people who take deliberate and definite actions guided by their souls rather than by common sense. The willingness of some people to go against common sense is responsible for some of the world’s most remarkable — if ultimately pointless — creations.

Effective Complaining, Creative Complaining: The Whole Jar Of Mushrooms

Complaining to a company about a substandard product or an unpleasant situation can be very effective. In many cases, the company will more than make up for its lapses with coupons, discounts, free items and many other kinds of compensation.

I don’t complain to a company or organization often, but when I do, I almost always get results. The purpose of this post is to tell you an interesting story about creative complaining that someone told me, but first let me tell you how effective my own complaining has been.

Effective Complaining

Off the top of my head, I can think of several situations about which I complained and for which I received compensation. I’ll tell you about three of them.

When I complained by email to a local museum a couple of months ago that I was turned away from viewing their galleries for free because the desk clerk didn’t know the museum was supposed to be free at that time, I received a free lunch, free admission to the galleries and free admission to one of their events — for all three of us who were turned away.

When I complained several years ago to a company that their breakfast cookies weren’t available at a local store as their website said they were, the company sent me a sampler box containing several varieties of their cookies. (And because I liked some of them, I ordered from the company several times.)

Perhaps even longer ago I complained to the corporate office of a fast-food restaurant in Plano because I received a chicken sandwich with only half a piece of chicken in it. The company was switching to smaller pieces for its sandwiches, and the manager at that location thought cutting down some of the old ones was a good way to use them up. I got a gift card for my trouble, and I like to think the manager got a blemish on his record for being so cheap.

There have been others, but I neither want to brag about how much I complain nor embarrass or promote the companies that have been most receptive to my complaints.

Watch Out For A Whole Jar Of Mushrooms

Being creative with the way you complain can increase effectiveness.

A postal clerk I used to see frequently told me about a snail-mail letter — she was a postal clerk, after all — that she sent to a major maker of spaghetti sauce.

I can’t remember her exact wording, of course, but I remember enough to give you a good idea of what she said to them. Here’s my re-creation of the letter she sent the company:

Dear sirs:

I’m not writing to complain, but I wanted to let you know to expect a complaint from another customer soon.

I bought a jar of your spaghetti sauce with mushrooms last week and at first thought it contained no mushrooms. After I dumped it into a bowl and went through it, I found that it did, in fact, contain two mushroom slices.

There were so many mushrooms missing from my jar that I want you to be watching for a complaint from a customer who got a whole jar of mushrooms. Someone must have gotten mine.

Sincerely…

Within a couple of weeks, she had an envelope full of high-value coupons from the company and an apology.

She was creative, and it was effective.

I’m rarely creative with my complaining, but I’m always firm and direct. That’s effective too.

Why Trader Joe’s Depresses Me

Trader Joe’s depressed me because it’s about as good as it gets. And I think we humans deserve better than frozen turkey burgers, fried orange chicken pieces and mixed nuts with chunks of peanut brittle in them.

For the best combination of quality and value, I’m convinced that Trader Joe’s, a chain of cut-price gourmet grocery stores, is the best choice in areas where the company has stores. Products have no preservatives, colorings or other icky things and are available at lower prices than in high-end grocers.

But the company specializes in frozen ready-made meals that require little or no cooking.

Actually, it’s the chef’s case at Central Market in Fort Worth that first got me thinking about the miserable state of the food most people eat and its uncertain origins. Central Market is an upscale grocery store that prides itself on a large deli where people can buy cold foods designed to be warmed up in a microwave. Whole Foods Market offers something similar in its stores. Like Central Market, Whole Foods is praised for the quality of its fresh-made deli offerings.

Trader Joe’s, Central Market and Whole Foods all depress me a bit, however. I’ve tried frozen and prepared products from all three stores, and I’ve been disappointed by most of them. I find that I’m most satisfied by food when I cook it myself because I know that it was prepared to my standards and tastes.

The frozen products I’ve found at Trader Joe’s are, in fact, superior to similar products I’ve found at my favorite grocery store, Aldi. And there’s nothing wrong with the potato salad or fresh sandwiches at Central Market either.

But surely we deserve better than that. Don’t we all deserve freshly made foods prepared with love by our own hands or the hands of people we know? Don’t we deserve fruits that haven’t been processed by professional canning companies and veggies that aren’t pre-trimmed and vacuumed-packed?

Isn’t it time to turn our backs on prepackaged, pre-made and flash-frozen?

You see, it’s precisely because Trader Joe’s, Central Market and Whole Foods are so well regarded that I wonder how many of us are eating well. I know I struggle with this every time I purchase something that disappoints me.

When I sample an item at an upscale deli counter known for its spectacular quality and find it uninspiring, unappealing or even unpleasant, one thought runs through my head immediately: This is as good as it gets. There may be no better prepared food on the planet, and it’s only fair.

We deserve better than this — better than bland and tasteless food provided to us in biodegradable plastic-like containers or cardboard freezer-proof boxes. We deserve food that’s actually been in a real skillet, pan or mixing bowl.

As I stand alongside aging executives in tailored suits and young mothers dragging along small children, I see what they get from these cases and freezer cabinets and feel a bit depressed.

I’ve often had what they’re having. It’s the best in the world, experts say, and I don’t think it’s very good.

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