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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflections of the Way Life Used to Be

Year end reflections are prone to being maudlin and exaggerated--neither of which is a particularly attractive trait But 'tis the season and far be it for me to buck those trends. 2010 was a tough year in our household, and by comparison 2011 was positively blissful. The biggest change is that I moved out of the house I raised my children in and lived in for 16 years (the longest that I have lived in any one dwelling--and prior to that was a house I lived in in medical school and college...I did not have one of those stable upbringings that revolved around a childhood community). I moved into a smaller, more manageable sized house. The whole process took the whole year. Overkill? Perhaps, but in my defense, we are not a family to shed superfluous belongings easily. Sports equipment that was long ago outgrown and unused for at least a decade was not an anomaly in our garage. And the new house does not even have a garage yet. Our old house had a prodigious amount of storage space and exceeded it. So downsizing meant shedding 75% of our belongings. No small task. So for literally months I spent 2-3 hours each day sorting through closet after closet, choosing what would go--it was an exhausting endeavor and it was not graciously performed. I was literally bruised and battered by the process, but on some level that helped the emotional aspect tremendously. I had some significant trepidation about leaving a home where we had bee so happy and which held so many memories. By the time we moved into our smaller home, I was ready to be done with the whole process, house and all. The end of the story? The 'new' house (which is 150 years old) is home. No question about it. No regrets. And if we did have regrets, we could go back. We still own the other house. But 2011 heralded our move into the adult children phase of our lives. Hurray!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Ode to Delicata Squash

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Okay, it is not that intense of a feeling, but as squash goes, this is the best. Better than Butternut. And it is simply prepared-- cut it in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and slice about a 1/4" thick. You will have dozens of smiles. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, then roast in a 400 degree oven until done. It is delicious and simple, just this way.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Catherine The Great by Robert Massie

Ok, I admit that I know essentially nothing about Russian history, and less about the czars and how they came to power. What I knew about the empress Catherine was even more suspect, and fell into the category of titillating rather than historical--multiple lovers, died having sex with a horse. Well, if Robert Massey is to be believed, this is not the case. She did have a series of lovers throughout her adult life, but fewer than most college students rack up these days, and she appears to have been more or less serially monogamous. Robert K. Massie's thorough and readable biography, Catherine the Great, draws a complex portrait of the often-misunderstood empress. Relying on primary sources (including Catherine's diaries and letters) and firsthand accounts, Massie unveils the personal and private sides of one of Russia's strongest leaders--she fashioned herself as the heir to Peter the Great, and sought to further his gains in bringing European sensibilities to the Russian culture. This fascinating and accessible narrative transports us to heart of the eighteenth-century Russian court, providing an intimate look at the people, places, and events important to Catherine during her half-century tenure in her adopted country. She was born of a mid-level German prince, a disappointment to him and a project for his wife. She managed to get her insinuated into the house of Peter the Great (his daughter was childless, but had adopted a nephew as her heir)--that is the good news. The bad news is that the her spouse was an immature (probably impotent) cad. Her life with him was at first a friendship and then a misery. But she is a woman who knew how politics operated, and the throne of Russia was at least as much about political alliances as it was about heredity. She made and nurtured her friends and it made her empress. Without much fuss. In typical Russian fashion, all others with a claim to the throne were quickly disposed of and she began her reign of bringing Enlightenment to Russia--or at least as much of it as the countryside could tolerate. A well written and enjoyable biography.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Grilled Cheese with Poblano Chilis


* 2 slices of excellent bread
* 2 ounces chevre or other spreadable cheese--I like fresh sheep milk cheese
* 2 slices crisp-fried bacon (optional)
* 1-2 grilled poblano chilis
* 1 tablespoon apricot preserves
* 2 tablespoons butter

Method:

Slice each poblano in half lengthwise, and remove stem, ribs and seeds. Place cut-side-down on a baking sheet, and broil until skins blacken and blister, about five minutes. Remove poblano from broiler, and transfer immediately into a plastic bag or other sealed container. Seal and let steam until cool enough to handle, about 10-20 minutes. Remove blackened skins by pinching them between your thumb and forefinger, and discard.

Spread one of the slices of bread with the chevre. Top with roasted poblano peppers, then bacon. Spread the other piece of bread with the apricot preserves, and add to sandwich. Butter each side of the sandwich, and toast in saucepan over medium heat until bread is toasted, about 3-4 minutes a side--until a nutty brown color. Closer to black than tan is best--the bread is then both crunchy and chewy and the butter is nutty, which is the key to a successful grilled cheese.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Absence of TV


Before I moved into my new house I was not a big consumer of television. The TV might be off days, sometimes a week at a time, with great regularity. But somehow I was convinced that I needed it. And I paid dearly for that belief--with the high definition cable package and the DVR that went with it, about a $100 a month--which over the course of a year adds up to real money.
So I survived, even thrived. I cut my cable umbilical chord, and entered the world of what the internet has to offer those who seek it. We know so much more about what is streaming free of charge. Lots, it turns out. In the six months that I have lived a television free existence I have no regrets. No one has mentioned anything that I wish I could have seen. I have completely missed the inevitable ad blitz of the 2012 caucus run up, and that alone is something to be thankful for. But most importantly. I have discovered other sources of film and media that are far less costly than what broadband commands to have the privilege of having it enter your home. On the cost side, I am paying under $50 a month to have a combination of DSL and Netflix streaming--plus I get a landline to boot--so I can give a phone number to those who require one for their records, and keep my cell phone number for those who are really important to me. At a fraction of what I was paying before. But it isn't just the money. I am happier being disconnected from the things that TV brings with it (I will have to find a streaming video source for the 2012 Olympics, to be sure--I do have my weaknesses, after all).

Monday, December 26, 2011

Shards by Ismet Prcic

This book is about Bosnia, the Balkans, war, and trauma. It is more uplifting than it sounds, but not by a mile. The novel is constructed in a series of fragments — shards — seemingly written by its main character, Ismet Prcic. Ismet grows up in Tuzla, Bosnia and manages to flee shortly before his induction into the “meat grinder” of the Bosnian infantry. He has survived and made his way to America, but is fractured by what he left behind. The novel comprises mostly segments from his memoirs and excerpts from his diary. The fragments are roughly organized into three strands. One consists of a diary Ismet (now called Izzy) keeps after he moves to America. Prcic, who immigrated to the United States in 1996 at the age of 19, has acquired a fluency in English that enables him to assimilate convincingly--on the surface--scratch that surface and you find damage. The second of the strands is Ismet’s memoir of growing up in Bosnia. Much of it is told in a lively and compelling adolescent voice, sensitive but also full of American pop-­culture references from the 1980's. Ismet is loved, particularly by his mother, who has a muse-like quality that is combined with the tragedy that she knows war is coming. Ismet (the author) is perceptive and brings his readers the experience of the war in small human details, especially effective in this strand. The novel’s third strand revolves around a Bosnian called Mustafa. Unlike Ismet, he fights in the war. Eventually, all three strands meld together. Figuring out how they corroborate one another or not, and how to reconcile the various versions of Ismet’s story, is one of the pleasures of reading this ambitious and deep novel. Ismet experienced the war in real life, but he also experienced it through television and the movies. He explains some of the factors associated with PTSD--saying that “movies don’t do it justice — that’s all I’m going to say about the thought-collapsing, breath-stealing sound a spinning shell makes as it pierces the air on the way down toward the center of your town.” Finally, he doesn’t register his experience of a massacre in Tuzla until he sees it on the news later. It reminds us how strange it is that people now watch their own wars on television, and how this seems to compound the trauma. The book is not solely about trauma and it's effects, but those elements are there, and it is eye-opening to read about them in this very interesting novel.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Holiday Habits

There have been very few Christmas Days in my life that I have not spent with my parents--this, above all other days, is the one that we choose to share. This year they became acutely unable to come to my house, and since I had volunteered to participate in holiday coverage, I am unable to go to them. So we are involuntarily separated this year. My children will be spending the holiday with them at their house--my parents will not be alone and sick for Christmas, but it is an unexpected change. Which is cause for reflection. I almost always work the Christmas holiday weekend--only twice in the last 20 years have I not done so. But I also have always had a Christmas dinner (which is essentially a repeat performance of the Thanksgiving meal--it has always been that way, since my childhood--and since the Thanksgiving meal is my absolute favorite meal, I saw no reason to mess with that tradition in my adulthood). My parents have been coming to my house for this since 1985, when I was an intern. In 1986 I had a brief period where I hosted my mother's extended family every year for the holiday, and I believe that I have hosted as many celebrations of Christmas as my mother (to be fair, she had more siblings, and they used to rotate the honors when I was a child). It has been a decade since I have really participated in any way in the hoopla of the season--I can barely get around to wrapping my presents, I have not been able to get holiday cards out the door consistently in recent years (I made New Year's cards, to be on the safe side, this year), and while I always have a good assortment of cookies on hand, that would be true any day of the year--it is not holiday baking per se that I am involved with. But not having my parents here is a blow. So surprise, surprise. Here I am, in my 50's, and it is the first time that I am unexpectedly faced with a holiday without my parents--so all told, I have been lucky to have them both alive and well up to this point--they are fiercely independent, and more than a little stubborn, so I know that not coming this year and admitting it was too much was a struggle, and indicative of how hard this past month has been for them. Time to reflect on the gifts we have, rather than the obstacles, because we could get mired in those. Best of all, my children have had the gift of having them in their lives up into adulthood. So there is much to be thankful for, even though we cannot be together this year. Enjoy the day with the family you were born with and the family you choose. Peace be with you.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Soup Made From Leftovers


I am a home cook--I am not someone who is running a restaurant kitchen. I have to cope with what is in the refrigerator, rather than shopping for each menu that I have planned. One of my real skills as a home cook is the ability to transform leftovers into something else entirely, something that will be eaten without any thought of what it's first life was like. The impetus is born of Depression era parents, who knew food shortages and are loath to waste anything. Transforming wilted vegetables into something both nutritious and delicious was a part of their upbringing, along with foraging and fishing. The single best way to transform leftovers is to make a soup. Starting with homemade stock is a big help in this endeavor, but not entirely necessary (we have a bag of poultry parts and bones in the freezer that we add to, and when there are enough of them to produce a stock, we empty it out and start again--the whole waste not, want not philosophy I grew up with rearing it's head again). I often take two or three leftover dishes that have lost their appeal (a vegetable side dish or two, and any meat that is leftover) and transform them into a soup--occasionally adding additional ingredients. The latest version was leftover turkey, some pasta with pesto, and assorted sauteed vegetables that had outlast their welcome in the refrigerator. Delicious! The one problem with this is that while the soup is often delicious, it is often not reproducible. I always say, "Love it or hate it, you will never have it again." On the other hand, you don't get tired of it. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Friday, December 23, 2011

London Train by Tessa Hadley


The London Train is another Tessa Hadley novel about family relationships--the main characters are sandwiched between their adult children and their infirmed and then dead parents. Middle-age dilemmas sprinkled with matter-of-fact sexual infidelities are the name of the game in this novel. In the novel's first part, we follow Paul, a writer who lives in Wales and is well into his second marriage, though still picking up the pieces from his first. He is searching for, and finds, his 'missing' daughter--she is not so much misplaced as she is avoiding her parents, and it is her father, not her mother, that she chooses to share what is going on in her life that she has left school and left them. In the second, shorter part, we follow Cora, wife of a senior civil servant who has fled back to her hometown of Cardiff following the failure of her marriage, in which the same Paul played a starring role. This folding structure suggests a symmetry that the novel eschews: it is not clear, for example, how the relationship between Paul and Cora affects, if at all, Paul's story of searching for his adult daughter who has gone missing. But I would count this asymmetry among the novel's more mature virtues, which include absolute lack of predictability and scrupulous sincerity. Cora and Paul are decidedly upper middle class--in their life-styles, in their prejudices, and in their world view. The problem is that someone forgot to tell Paul's daughter to follow those rules, and she does not. The book is strongest (for my taste) in the telling of Paul's story, but the interweaving of two tales is well written and well done. The London Train is a novel of convalescence, in which its middle-aged characters are recovering from their parents' deaths, and this convalescence reveals to Cora that "to treasure up relics from every phase of her life as it passed, as if it were holy" was "a falsely consoling model of experience". Now she feels that the "present was always paramount, in a way that thrust you forward: empty, but also free". She may be onto something.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bless His Blooming Heart

Why Iowa? In this season of debates, caucuses, and primaries,it is a valid question to ask. Stephen Bloom's 'observations' in The Atlantic do not even start that conversation. Worse still, it panders to those who already deride the state with broad sweeping generalities that belie my personal experiences in rural Iowa, and are certainly not applicable to where Professor Bloom and I live, which is a city with the largest per capita population of PhD's and MD's in the country. No, we did not check our educations at the state line. There are good reasons why we were awarded the UNESCO 'City of Literature' moniker (the only city in the United States to be so designated, and one of the few cities in the world to be so recognized). We are not afraid to leave our community, and we are not backward, drug addled illiterates. Which gets to my major beef. There are out and out lies in the article. For one, it is inconceivable that he has been asked on more than one occasion, much less every time, if his Labrador retriever is a hunting dog in the upper middle class neighborhood in which he resides. Professor Bloom in no way resembles a hunter and I suspect his dog isn't looking ready to track down hapless birds shot out of the air. Iowans know their hunting dogs as well as their hunters, and he smacks of city boy, top to bottom. In addition, while there are more hunting dogs per Iowan than in other places, the vast majority of dogs in Iowa City are pets, pure and simple. The list of inaccuracies goes on. There are so many in the article that the very valid points he makes are drowned in the river of exaggeration. The man may not know where his elbow is but he is clearly in touch with his ass. So why make these wild allegations?
Hard to say. Here is Raygun's response. It is up to their usual brilliance. Take the patently ridiculous things that Professor Bloom alleges in his article and poke major fun at it--and by reflection, him. I immediately bought four of them and was lucky to get them. They are selling rapidly, and for good reason. It is a way to trumpet our indignation without seeming churlish. To laugh at the charges leveled at us. And to make the man who leveled them look patently ridiculous, using his own words to do so. Many of us in Iowa City are transplanted Iowans, but we have come to love the state, despite it's foibles--which are not those that Professor Bloom illustrates, sadly. Hard to believe he has a journalism career. Those who can't, teach it appears. As a teacher, I have shied away from that characterization, but when it fits, it fits. So what about western Iowa, one might ask? Is that where he got his material? Not if he spent any time there. I agree with Kurt Friese's response to Professor Bloom, published on The Atlantic web site--including his recommendation that anyone who wants to experience small town Iowa take a week and join RAGBRAI (The Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa). Small towns generously open their communities to 10,000+ strangers each summer (which is often a number that is larger than the town itself). Churches open their doors and you can attend a church supper every night of the ride--what you will experience is tremendous hospitality, food that would be recognizable anywhere in the country, and the famously wonderful pies that Iowa is renowned for. Finally, why has Professor Bloom lived in Iowa for 20 years. Why would anyone who has such scathing derision for his home state remain there? Why not leave for a place he respects? Is he cursed with bad judgment, poor perceptual abilities, poor choices, all three? Perhaps Professor Bloom has a balanced personality--a chip on both shoulders--and the weight is holding him hostage. Perhaps it is simply that he can't find such a place.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

One Day (2011)

Anne Hathaway (Emma) and Jim Sturgess (Dex) pair up to portray the couple depicted in David Nicholl's book of the same title. I loved the book, which makes it difficult to love the movie, but I like both actors, and I was not disappointed. The story is that two friends, who have shared a bed while in University, but choose to go forward opting out of the sexual side of their friendship over a lengthy period of time, only to change their minds down the road. She has a major crush on him from the beginning, and not hard to see why early on--he is handsome and confident and charming. She is shy and not completely in touch with her beauty. She hides underneath glasses and ill-fitting calico. The story unwinds through a series of view of one day each year--St. Swithin's Day--and it turns out that Emma is talented and beautiful, while Dex turns into someone that is really unlikable--even his father can't bear him. So he gets less successful as she gets more successful, and as Dex has to deal with various realities (he is not a talented TV performer and he is a serious drunk), he is better able to see that Emma is his one true love. Or at least she is his one true friend, and he manages to see the value in that. The story takes a left turn near the end, which is much harder to take in the movie than when you are just reading about it--but the take home message--don't let the good one get away, and live for the moment because you don't know what tomorrow brings--is well delivered.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman

This is a there go I but for the grace of God kind of story. This was on the 100 notable books of 2011 list, and I am grateful for that, because otherwise I would have missed this book, and that would have been a shame. I do not always agree that those books are the best of the year, but they are usually very good at the least, and since I am not completely steeped in the book world, I would mis many of them. Liz and Richard Bergamot are upper middle class everyday parents. He is the reason they are newly moved to Manhattan and she is the one staying home to make sure the transition goes well, resenting every minute of it, which leads to day time drinking and the occasional joint (ok, that is perhaps not the norm, but it doesn't lead to the central problem in the book). They have two kids, one adopted and young (Coco) and one biological and a 15 year old teen (Jake). Jake goes to a party where there is lots of alcohol, no parents, one night hook-ups and while he turns down sex with a 13 year old, she sends him a graphic video of herself via email the next day. He had a response to it that confuses and overwhelms him, so he sends it to his best friend, who sends it to two people, and then it goes viral. By Monday, everyone has seen it and Jake is sitting at the epicenter of the storm he has unleashed. The writing is outstanding, the story is well told, the consequences for both teens involved is heart breaking, and the narcissism of their parents is frightening...and a cautionary tale.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

"The Tree of Life," Terrence Malick's 1950s-set drama that ruminates on questions of family, faith and the universe, was named best picture of the year last Monday by the African-American Film Critics Assn. Roger Ebert thought it was the autobiography he would do in film if he were as talented as Terrence Malick. One thing we know is that the director is more about quality than quantity--this is only his fifth film in 38 years. The film takes place largely in the past--Sean Penn does a brief but interesting job as a grown up son, Jack, in the present, but that is it for current events. The rest of the film takes place in small town Texas of the nineteen-fifties. That is almost the only traffic; children play, on tranquil streets, under skies of perpetual fluffy clouds. Among the kids is Jack (played by the excellent Hunter McCracken), a boy growing up with his younger brothers, R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan), under the wing of their parents, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and his wife (Jessica Chastain). The parents are of contrast--Pitt is stern, rigid, quick to anger, and frustrated. His wife is ethereal, serene, and in the absence of her husband, quite playful and child-like. The imagery throughout the film is spectacular, the message is deep, but I think you have to be more engaged in semiotics than I am to really appreciate the film. It is pitch perfect, smoldering with emotion and short on answers.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Almond Financiers


This was a surprise favorite from the 8 cakes my friend Ivy and I made to try for my eldest son's wedding. The recipe is from Sherry Yard's 'Secrets of Baking' cookbook, and it is divine
* 1 cup (8 oz/227 g) unsalted butter
* 1 plump vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
* Nonstick cooking spray with flour
* 1-1/4 cups (3.8 oz/108Flour) g) almond flour or ground almonds
* 3/4 cup (3 oz/85 g) spooned and leveled cake flour
* 2-1/2 cups (10 oz/283 g) confectioners' sugar
* 1/8 teaspoon (pinch) salt
* 8 large egg whites (8 oz/227 g), room temperature
* 1 cup (3.2 oz/92 g) sliced unblanched almonds
* 3 tablespoons (1.5 oz/43 g) butter, melted
* 3 tablespoons (45 ml) melted and strained orange marmalade, for glaze

1. Place 1 cup (8 oz/227 g) butter in a heavy saucepan. With the tip of a small knife, scrape some of the inside of the vanilla bean into the butter and add the bean to the butter. Heat over medium-low heat until the dairy solids settle to the bottom and begin to brown to a deep gold, about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat, take out the vanilla bean, and allow to cool to room temperature. The butter needs to be melted, but not hot.

2. Arrange a shelf in the lower third of the oven with a baking stone on it and preheat the oven to 350°F/177°C. Spray small round or rectangular pans, miniature savarin rings, or small barquette pans with nonstick cooking spray with flour.

3. Spread half of the almond flour in a baking dish and roast until golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes.

4. With a mixer, beat together on low speed for at least 30 seconds the almond flour, cake flour, confectioners' sugar, and salt. Add the egg whites all at once and beat on medium speed for 3 minutes. Dump in all of the melted vanilla butter, scraping the bottom of the pan to get all of the browned bits. Beat on medium speed for about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides and across the bottom of the mixing bowl at least once.

5. Pour into the prepared pans. In the photograph insert we used fluted individual tins. Place on the hot baking stone and bake until the small cakes are lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes.

6. In a small skillet, toss the almond slices with the melted butter and heat with constant stirring until lightly browned.

7. Allow the cakes to cool in the pans on a rack for about 5 minutes, and then carefully remove from the pans and place on the rack to cool completely. Invert the little cakes one at a time out of the pan and place the cakes on a baking sheet. Brush the cake bottoms (now tops) with strained marmalade for a shiny glaze. Sprinkle with the toasted almonds and glaze the top of the almonds too.

8. This batter keeps in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. It is actually better made a day ahead. Before using, stir the batter well, scraping the bottom, and beat for 1 minute by hand or with a mixer to warm up and blend together well.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tortas Frontera, O'Hare Airport

I can't believe that there is an airport restaurant that I actually look forward to eating in. Last month I had a fly in, fly out trip to DC and I ate there twice. In fact, the only food I ate all day was from Tortas Fronteras. And it was the highlight of the day (not much of a challenge, of course, when the day entails getting up a 4am to catch a 5:30 flight and not getting home until midnight. The challenge is having any kind of highlight at all). I have been a fan of Rick Bayless' food for a long time. I had already discovered Mexican regional cooking--in two ways. One was by being in various regions in Mexico, which exposed me to the food, but didn't teach me anything about it. The other is Mr. Bayless' cookbook 'Authentic Mexican', which taught me how to cook the food I loved. The recipes are a balance between authentic and possible. A variety of kinds of dried chilis are required for the sauces--you can't get away with shaking a few spices into a blender and hoping for the best. But on the other hand, the food is possible to make. You can actually get the ingredients without living in a major metropolitan area.
So,what do I like here? Everything. I am serious about that. The salads are fantastic--big and flavorful. The poblano corn crema is fantastic. The guacamole is unbelievable (get it fully loaded). But the tortas are a must. They take a few minutes to prepare, but they are all good. I know, because I have tried every single one of them--I love coming with a group, because then you can try more than one. I have recreated the mushroom one at home it is so delicious. The garlic shrimp torta is the best shrimp sandwich I have had. The restaurant is located near B10 in Terminal 1--don't miss it--it is worth the walk from far away, and definitely don't walk by it without trying something!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Foyle's War


I rarely write about my addiction to BBC murder mysteries. I freely admit the failing, but I am not particularly interested in trumpeting it far and wide. It is a quiet addiction. I am making an exception for 'Foyle's War' because there is a bit more to it. The thing that sets it apart isn’t the detective stories, which are as average formulaic as those in any other British period mystery and sometimes hard pressed to seem even plausible. It excels in it's historical time setting--World War II in the south of England. It has the astonishing level of historical detail and atmosphere that the show’s creator, Anthony Horowitz, and his team have brought to the show’s milieu — the town of Hastings (I have some historical connection to the Battle of Hastings, so I am fond of the setting), on the south coast of England, during World War II. Not to mention that the script is smart and brisk and beezy in all the ways you would hope for. I have just finished the 5th season, which is when the war is wrapping up. The character's in the series are what make it. Michael Kitchen’s quietly compelling performance as Christopher Foyle, the extremely buttoned-down but testy police inspector whose passions for justice and tolerance animate the stories, and the easy chemistry among him and his two foils, Anthony Howell as Sergeant Milner and especially Honeysuckle Weeks as the steadfast driver Samantha Stewart. The three of them allow us to see the problems that war presents. Half the population is off fighting the war--the half that are left at home are a mixed bunch, and stressed by their situation. The bombings are frequent, unpredictable, and people are burnt, maimed, killed, and left homeless by them. Women who have never worked are now in the workforce in droves. No one is sure how they feel about that. And then to top it off, despite the fact there is a war going one, people insist on behaving badly--some of them it is just business as usual, some are taking advantage of the situation the war presents, and some are unaware that the behavior they used to know as bad is now treason. It is a great medium for thinking about the emotional aspects of WWII, all the while enjoying the drama.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Malcom X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

Malcolm has finally received the book that his unique role in black and global resistance culture deserves. Long before multiculturalism entered the language of political discourse, Malcolm was busy exploring its logical endpoint of ethnic and cultural separation. He ardently believed in separation of the races up until almost the end of his life, believing that blacks could never be treated equally by whites, so he said different things to different people. He was adept at tailoring his message to different audiences, often blatantly contradicting on a Thursday what he had clearly and emotively stated on a Monday--he wouldn't have fared nearly as well in the age of Youtube and 24/7 news. The Daily Show would have shredded him.
Yet despite, the man who emerges from this book is in many respects admirable: brave, loyal, self-disciplined, quick-witted, charismatic, acutely intelligent and a public speaker of quite awesome power. While Malcolm correctly predicted that black culture would assume a central role in American life, he would never have foreseen the election of a black president. Manning presents a strong case that there was some form of FBI collusion in his murder, if only to the degree that the bureau, which had spies all over the NOI, failed to prevent the plot. He also floats the probability that at least one of the killers was an FBI informant. Whatever the truth, there is no disputing that Malcolm was shot dead by men who largely shared his beliefs. The book does not speculate much on how or why Malcolm X became the man he did--the book tells the story in a matter-of-fact manner, up to and including his murder, and what happened soon thereafter. A very good read.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Christmas Carol

I spent a wonderful Sunday afternoon watching the City Circle Community Theater's production of 'A Christmas Carol' at the lovely Coralville Center for the Performing Arts--and I highly recommend it--the performances yet to come are this Friday-Sunday. It is a fabulous space, and there is something really cosey about community theater. Those are people we know up there doing such a great job performing classic stories for our entertainment. The Dickens tale, set in Victorian England, still resonates today. Why? It is a classic redemption tale, and we Americans are complete suckers for redemption. What does that mean? Here is a general definition: A redemption theme is a story paradigm for fiction that centers around a fundamental moral arc within the main character from bad to good. At the start of the story the character will be deeply flawed in a way that reverberates throughout the story, reflected by the character’s choices and actions. By the end of the story the character has undergone a “trial by fire” that results in a Phoenix experience of rising from the ashes, a totally new, more powerful and more whole person. Yes indeed. This story fits that to a tee. In fact, Scroodge has become a big name over the past 100 years. The story is well known, and has been told a number of different ways in recent years ('Scroodged' is my favorite modern verison of the story). The scare tactic is the central agent of the change from bad to good--plus a gentle reminder in the midst of it all that at one time Scroodge was in love himself, that he gave that up for the pursuit of wealth, and perhaps he has some regrets about that. The story seems particularly poignant this year, as the gap between rich and poor is as great as it was in Victorian England and the Occupy Wall Street and others have reminded us that the rapid accumulation of wealth by a few has come at the expense of many in the middle class. And it has been remorselessly acquired. Sound familiar? Time for the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future to start paying some visits to the robber barons of our time.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Beginners (2011)


The movie is seen through the eyes, the sensibility and the inevitably somewhat ambiguous life experience of Oliver (Ewan Macgregor), a 38 year old single man. When the film opens, the year is 2003, and Oliver's father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), a retired museum director, has just died of cancer at the age of 79. Who is gay. Something Oliver did not know until his mother died when his father was 75, and came out. He was married to Oliver's mother for 44 years but that wasn't the real him. As Oliver tells us, Georgia checked in her Jewishness and Hal his homosexuality at the altar. Now that she is gone, he is ready to be really truely out there in your face gay. And he does a brilliant job of it.
When Hal comes out of the closet he shocks his easily shocked son with his frankness. Hal finds a younger lover, Andy (Goran Visnjic), through an encounter column, and throws himself into the gay community and its politics. He then enjoys a remarkable Indian summer of happiness before stoically living with cancer in his final months, which Oliver nurses him through, all the while taking in this new father image.
In the midst of the grief he is feeling for the loss of his father, he is trying to bring what he learned from his father into his new relationship with a woman (Mélanie Laurent), which makes you cringe and laugh at the same time.
Beginners is funny, moving, and it draws you in. The acting is beyond reproach, with Christopher Plummer bringing delightful wit, compassion and unsanctimonious grace to the role of Hal. In its quiet, unostentatious way, it's one of the best films I've seen about the World War II generation's experience of living through and responding to the profound social changes of the past 60+ years.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

The publication of Umberto Eco’s latest novel, The Cemetery of Prague, has created controversy in Italy. The criticisms are interesting, as they touch upon two themes that are particularly current in criticism these days – usually applied to less sensitive topics than antisemitism (which is prominent in the book): how to deal with the boundaries between the real and the fictional, and the need or otherwise to empathize with a novel’s characters. Additionally, the very public criticisms voiced by the Vatican backed Osservatore Romano newspaper, and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni have raised eyebrows as well.

Eco, an academic, takes on freemasonry, conspiracy theories, forgery and the unification of Italy amongst other things in this latest novel, but at its core is anti-semitism and perhaps the most famous – and certainly the most pernicious – forgery in the world: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The main character of Eco’s novel, the fictitious* Simone Simonini, whom he describes as ‘the most hateful man in the world’, is a master forger in the employ of various secret services. Fueled by anti-semitism, he concocts the ultimate conspiracy theory, where a mythic meeting of the elders of Zion takes place in the Jewish cemetery in Prague, detailing their nefarious plan to rule the world.
It’s not the first time that Eco has examined conspiracy theories, or indeed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but this time the focus in particular on the most famous anti-semitic conspiracy theory, and his choice of a convinced anti-semitic protagonist has raised objections. I found it disturbing--both the text and the numerous lithographs that he includes in the book. it is just hard to read that much vitriol from a character and have it left unbalanced by anything else. There is no real opposing view--the reader is left to that job.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Must We Be Different?


I was moved to quarrelsomeness this past week. The provovation was relatively minor. A friend of mine posited on his Facebook wall that a child raised by same-sex parents who trumpets his normalcy is undesirable--that we should hope for better.
The video on youtube of Zach Wahls testifying before the Iowa legislature against an amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman in February, 2011 went viral, and continues to enjoy elevated popularity, as does the man himself.
He describes himself as being a regular guy--a straight guy, with academic accomplishments, community invovlement, and he is clean cut good looking to boot. The point being that being raised by two women didn't change anything about who he was. They raised a child you would be proud to call your own. And that really resonated with people.
My friend, who has been a long time proponent of marriage equality as well as raising an openly gay child, was unhappy about that. His main objection is why should the focus be on normalcy? Why not celebrate differences. if kids raised by gay parents are different, if they don't fit our preconceived ideas of what is a 'good kid', is that a bad thing? Would that mean that we should be against gay marriage?
Well, I see his point, I do. But I am not the audience you need to convince. That audience is a group of people who are not well known for valuing differences, and for them, Zach Wahls is hard to reckon with--he is an Eagle Scout, for goodness sake. So I was moved to defend ordinary and normal as acceptable and perhaps even valuable attributes, especially for someone who might feel different to begin with. But it will be nice when no one is surprised that kids raised by gay parents have all the pluses and minuses of kids raised by straight parents. That will be a good day.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cookie Decorating Short Cut


I love the technique that I learned when I decorated some of my cut out cookies this year. In order to get this kind of coverage with royal icing, you need to pipe the outline around the cookies edge, then flood the cookie and spread it out to fill up the space. It takes about 5-10 minutes per cookie, depending on it's size, and the speed and dexterity of the person doing the decorating.
As an alternative, you can make the royal icing a bit thicker (the rule of thumb is that it should take about 6-7 seconds for a drop of the icing to meld back into the bowl. I am not a big fan of royal icing--sweet and boring--not a great flavor combination--but kids love it. You put enough royal icing in a pie plate to a thickness of about 1/2" . Using gel icing coloring, put about 4-5 drops of coloring into the pie pan--one at a time, in a circle about halfway between the middle of the pie plate and the edge.
To decorate, dip the cookie into the royal icing at a colored drop--when you pull the cookie up, that motion alone creates the swirls of color. Because the icing is a bit on the thick side, you have to kind of shake the excess icing off the cookie, then lay it on a cookie rack to dry completely--in a dry environment it takes 1-2 hours for them to dry enough to put them into cookies containers.
I decorated 6 dozen cookies in about 30". Hard to beat that!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson


The kids in this book have been raised by wolves. Wolves who smoke pot. Wolves who turn on, tune out, and the drop out. Hippies who never got over it, but decided to bring kids into the picture. They leave behind children who are emotionally not able to cope with the 21st century. They have grown up with poverty, drugs, poor sexual boundaries and then are cast adrift into a complicated and problematic world.
The book revolves around the lives of four characters: Jude, Teddy, Eliza and Johnny. Jude's father left when he was nine, after telling the young boy that he was adopted. Nice parting shot. Later someone tell shim that he has the physical signs of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, that the 16 year old who gave him up for adopHe left him with his mother, who makes glass bongs for a living. She has some very lax rules about drug use in the house, as you might imagine. Jude's friend Teddy has a mother who is a drunk and a drug addict and leaves town on the day we meet him, which is also the day he dies. Jude and Teddy are best friends, both fifteen and doing every reckless drug they can get hold of— marijuana, cocaine, mushrooms, alcohol, petroleum distillate, turpentine and Freon, which is the one that kills Teddy.
But not before Eliza, the daughter of Jude's father's girlfriend, comes for a visit to their Vermont town on that New Year's Eve and makes love with Teddy in the bathroom of a party house just hours before he dies. And gets pregnant. Which rocks the world of Jude, and Teddy's brother, Johnny. The book is about the dysfunctional way these three teenagers deal with Teddy's death and Eliza's pregnancy, against the dysfunctional way that their parents deal with them, and with their lives in general. Well written and recommended.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Paintings by Stan Fellows


I have been so happy in my new house that I have been hard pressed to find a reason to leave it. On the one hand, great to love you environs, but on the other, it is good to get out and mingle with the rest of the world on occasion.
So I am particularly happy that some friends driving by my house called and offered to take me to see Stan Fellows' art showing. He is an immensely talented artist, and he has recently moved to a rural setting in River Junction, where he has gotten a lot of the inspiration for his recent paintings.
I mentioned to Stan that I didn't get out much these days, and he laughed and said the same charge could be leveled at him--he doesn't even have to leave home to work, and he has no more neighbors than I do (although I did see someone walk by his living room window while I was there, and that has not happened at my house).
What is his solution? He paints at Hope House, a place where patients and their families can stay while they are getting cancer treatment at the hospital. He says it is a win-win for everyone. The patients love to watch him work, and talk with him about everything you can imagine. He gets regularly scheduled time to paint, and lots of feedback on his work.
People who are diagnosed with serious life altering illness find that lots of their friends and family tend to pull away from them. Consciously people do not think that these illnesses are contagious, but a natural reaction is avoid contact with people who are undergoing things that are too painful for one to deal with. So besides having a scary illness, you are isolated and all alone. Stan is not only a great painter, but he is counterbalancing that phenomenon. He is choosing to enter people's lives when they are sick, and he is providing entertainment, comfort, and beauty, all in one fell swoop. Check out Stan's blog (click on the title to get to it) and see what wonderthings he is painting

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear by Seth Mnookin


I just saw Seth Mnookin speak at a national meeting about this book, which I read in preparation for his talk. He tackles the topic of vaccine safety, focusing primarily on the alleged connection between vaccines and autism as the center of his exploration, but does cover other reasons people avoid vaccines, and then closes with the consequences of not vaccinating children--both for those who chose that route, but also for those who are innocent bystanders--like children who are too young for a particular vaccine.
Mr. Mnookin is impressed that so many well-educated Americans are so deeply skeptical of established power. Whether the target is agribusiness, Big Pharma or the government, citizens who benefit most from "the system" are concluding not only that it's broken, but also that it's out to harm us as well. He became intrigued with this paradoxical social phenomenon after attending a dinner party in 2008. At this gathering he listened to a first-time father explain that he was delaying his infant's measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine on the grounds that he felt it was unsafe. According to what system of logic, Mnookin wondered, would an otherwise sensible man with absolutely no medical authority feel vaccination was unsafe? And why were so many intelligent people who "lived in college towns like Ann Arbor and Austin" eschewing standard pediatric procedures based on gut feelings rather than hard evidence?
That and subsequent conversations led him down the path to this book, a meticulously researched investigation into the popular belief that certain vaccines can cause autism. Combining narrative talent (so you can actually enjoy and understand the facts you are presented with) with assiduous reporting he explores "a manner of thinking" that not only runs "counter to the principles of deductive reasoning," but also threatens those of us who vaccinate our kids.
It takes guts to write a book informing a group of aggrieved parents that they're wrong about the source of their child's disorder. While Mnookin is consistently respectful of the emotional pain that autism can cause, he pulls no punches. Balancing sensitivity and science, he makes a devastating case that parents who reject vaccines for fear of autism are "casualties of a war built on lies." And he has become a target of zealous parents who passionately believe he is wrong, and has damaged their world with his assertion that there is no connection.
Mnookin tells his story from an impressive number of angles, but his primary emphasis centers on the social-psychological processes underscoring the widespread misperception that vaccines cause autism. At the core of his analysis is a basic scientific truism, one that we tend to forget: It's virtually impossible to immunize millions of people without experiencing a small percentage of random adverse reactions. Put simply, some kids are always going to react badly to their "jabs." Sometimes very badly. But overall the risk is greatly outweighed by the benefit, and Mnookin includes several heartbreaking stories of people whose children died as a result of not being vaccinated.
The story is a good one, and it is well told. In his talk, Mnookin admited that there is no convincing those who adamantly believe their children were damaged by vaccines, but does have some suggestions to help battle the growing number of parents skeptical about vaccines--one good one, I thought, was to have information groups for parents prenatally where they could talk about vaccines, their concerns and address them before they are incredibly sleep deprived and have to bring their infants into the doctor's office at 2 months of age for the first round of immunizations. The book is a great contribution to public health.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Spice Cookies


I like this recipe from King Arthur for a less intense spice cookie. I started my holiday baking and these were amongst the first round favorites.
* 1/2 cup butter
* 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
* 3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
* 1/2 cup granulated sugar
* 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
* 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
* 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
* 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice or ground cloves
* 3/4 teaspoon salt
* 1 large egg
* 2 tablespoons molasses
* 3 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
* 3 tablespoons cornstarch


1) In a medium-sized bowl, beat together the butter, shortening, sugars, baking powder, spices, and salt until light and fluffy.

2) Add the egg and molasses, and beat well.

3) Mix about half of the flour into the butter mixture. When well combined, add the cornstarch and the remaining flour.

4) Divide the dough in half, flattening each half slightly to make a disk. Smooth the edges by rolling the disk along a lightly floured work surface. Wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 1 hour (or longer), for easiest rolling.

5) Preheat the oven to 350°F.

6) Take one piece of dough out of the refrigerator, and flour a clean work surface, and the dough.

7) Roll it out as thin or thick as you like. For slightly less crisp cookies, roll it out more thickly. We like to roll these cookies 1/8" to 1/4"inch thick. Use flour under and on top of the dough to keep it from sticking to the table or rolling pin.

8) Alternatively, place the dough on parchment, and put a sheet of plastic wrap or another piece of parchment over it as you roll, pulling the plastic or parchment to eliminate wrinkles as necessary when rolling; this will keep dough from sticking without the need for additional flour.

9) Transfer the cookies to baking sheets.

10) Bake them just until they're slightly brown around the edges, or until they feel firm, about 10 to 12 minutes.

11) Remove the cookies from the oven, and let them cool on the baking sheet for several minutes, or until they're set. Transfer them to a rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Yield: 3 to 4 dozen 2 1/2" to 3" cookies.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Swerve--How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt


Greenblatt makes the argument that Lucretius’s “De rerum natura” (“On the Nature of Things”), unearthed, after centuries of being lost, in an unknown monastery by the book hunter Poggio Bracciolini in 1417, allowed European civilization to edge away from the religiosity of the Christian Middle Ages and move into a world view that is increasingly secular. Or at the very least it influenced people who made the 'swerve' away from a stalwart belief in the supremacy of the Church to a belief in science.
The book-length Latin poem, written in the 1st century B.C. by the Roman poet, is so remarkably beautiful and gripping, without being any less a didactic work of Epicurean philosophy, one that sets forth a resolutely materialist view of “the nature of things.” According to Lucretius, the gods may exist, but they are utterly indifferent to humankind. Atoms — very much like our modern idea of atoms — are the sole building blocks of the cosmos. Because the atoms occasionally wobble or swerve as they fall through space, collisions result, and from these collisions various complicated, sophisticated agglomerations are created, including people. Souls do not exist, and there is no afterlife. When we eventually die, our atoms disperse and our particular selves utterly disappear. Consequently, it is foolish to fear death since, in effect, we’ll never know we’re dead. Instead, we should simply enjoy this world and relish its pleasures (of which sex is a prominent example). The most truly wise, advice Lucretius makes is for the quiet enjoyment of plain but good food, the conversation of friends, an existence far removed from ambition.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sushi Sundays at Konomi, Coralville, IA


We are blessed with a variety of Japanese and Asian fusion restaurants in our area, and while many of them are very good, this is the one we choose to go to for Sunday dinners, with or without our kids. Why? A couple of reasons. The first is that this is the most consistant Japanese restaurant in the area. What do I mean by consistant? I mean that when you order the same item off the menu, you know exactly what you are going to get. You can expect the dishes that you order on subsequent visits to be recognizable from the dish you had on your first visit. That is a plus, especially when you are dining with children that are not all that flexible. WHich you might not have a problem with but I do, in so many different ways...one won't eat fish, one will only eat fish, one will eat the rice, the miso soup, and the salad, but all bets are off about anything else. Restaurant choices that match each and every one of them that also meet my needs are not necessarily an easy find.
Why do we like to go on Sundays? First, it is the end of one week and on the cusp of another--if we haven't seen our out-of-the-house kids all week, it is a nice day to catch up with them. We usually cook a dinner on Sunday at our house, but we will occasionally go out--especially if we have been cooking aall week for other events. But our choice of Konomi on Sunday is simple--that is when they have a discount on sushi rolls. An added plus for a restaurant we already enjoy.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

1493 by Charles Mann


I loved this book that gives a longitudinal view of what effect Columbus' discovery of the Americas had on the world at the time, and then going forward. He picks a few things that are American to illustrate his overall point that this was a major turning point in civilization. I spent all last year helping my high school tenth grader with AP World History, so I had the nuts and bolts down ahead of reading this, but the way Mann fills in the gaps is wonderful.
In the four major sections of the book, he takes us around the Atlantic (with tobacco and malaria), the Pacific (with silver, piracy and corn), Europe (with potatoes, pesticides and rubber) and Africa (with race and slave rebellions). It is that sweeping, even using a limited number of examples. The conclusions he draws may not be universally agreed with, but his perspective on how each thing covered had an immediate effect, and then what the longer range view might be is a wonderful--and not dry--way to view historical influences that might be functioning today. The role of China on the world stage has waxed and waned over the past three thousand years, and to be able to see the recent re-emergence as part of a pattern over centuries rather than coming out of nowhere is very interesting.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Blind Wine Tasting


I have done this several times over the last couple of years, but over Thanskgiviing weekend we did a blind tasting of 3 white wines, 2 rose, and 4 red wines that we might serve at my eldest son's wedding nest summer.
The key element is to disquise the wine--the best is to take wrapping paper and cover the bottle from top to bottom. This is critical because it eliminates any preconceived notions that you have about the wine and allows you to really focus on the elements that you like and don't like about each wine without using previously awuired knowledge in the mix. Prior to the wraping, mark each wine label with the number or letter you are going to assign to the bottle on the outside of the wrapping, as well as the price. Put the idenitfier on the outside of the wrapping (bt not the price) and proceed with tasting. If you are going to be serving the wine with food, have some variety of things to nibble on with the wine, so you can get a sense of what it will taste like on it's own and with a meal.
Since you may not have an idea of the character of each wine, it is nice (but not bnecessary) to have someone else weigh in on the tasting order. We tried the whites together first, followed by the roses, and then the reds. We did not find a rose we liked (we all agreed we had better ones in the past, and would need to repeat this process down the road--oh dear :-). We found a white we were ok with but not in love with, so the search may continue there as well. We found two reds we loved (one of which, when unwrapped, was a perennial favorite--but it won, fair and square), and our work is done there.
Once the tasting has been done and discussed, and a consensus has been reached, unwrap the bottles. Then you can go about tasting them further, seeing whether the favorites hold up to further tasting. It is a great process for choosing mid-range priced wine for an event that is very fun for the hosts of the big event to get input from others, and have a little mini-party to boot.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Chicken Piccata


We had a wonderful dinner to try potential wines and desserts for my eldest son's wedding next summer, and in between the two, we had an Italian meal of risotto and chicken piccata--both are simple foods, easy to prepare, and delicious.
* 4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
* salt and pepper
* All-purpose flour, for dredging
* 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
* 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
* 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
* 1/2 cup chicken stock
* 2 Tbs. capers
* 1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped

Directions

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Pound the chicken to about 3/4" thick. Dredge chicken in flour and shake off excess.

In a large skillet over medium high heat, butter and olive oil. When they start to sizzle, add 2 pieces of chicken and cook for 3 minutes. When chicken is browned, flip and cook other side for 3 minutes. Remove and transfer to plate.

Into the pan add the lemon juice, stock and capers. Return to stove and bring to boil, scraping up brown bits from the pan for extra flavor, and reducing the sauce by half. Check for seasoning. Return all the chicken to the pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove chicken to platter. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter to sauce and whisk vigorously. Pour sauce over chicken and garnish with parsley.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Information: The History, The Theory, The Flood by Jaes Gleick


THe book opens with the history of communicating information. The first chapter is about 'drum talk', which is a drum language used in a part of the Democratic Republic of Congo where the spoken language is Kele. European explorers had been aware for a long time that the irregular rhythms of African drums were carrying mysterious messages through the jungle. Explorers would arrive at villages where no European had been before and find that the village elders were already prepared to meet them. What they were slow to understand was why. In 1938, John Carrington became the first European to get why. Kele is a tonal language with two sharply distinct tones. Each syllable is either low or high. The drum language is spoken by a pair of drums with the same two tones. Each Kele word is spoken by the drums as a sequence of low and high beats. In passing from human Kele to drum language, all the information contained in vowels and consonants is lost. In a European language, the consonants and vowels contain all the information, and if this information were dropped there would be nothing left. But in a tonal language like Kele, some information is carried in the tones and survives the transition from human speaker to drums. They needed to add additional 'nonsense' words to make the meaning of the drumming clear, but it was essentially mimicking spoken language.
The second historical example is from France, when Claude Chappe developed a coded communication that could be viewed through telescopes--which came into being right around the time of the French Revolution. Chappe was a patriot who developed coded communications that were viewed through telescopes.
The book then segues into modern history, which begins with Samuel Morse, who made it possible to communicate almosttantaniously over long distances-=-at a time when it had taken days if not weeks to do so. Unlike Chappel, Morse was not interested in secrecy--his was the communication of business and he was wildly successful.
The theory refers to the work of Claude Shannon, the father of the science of information theory. In 1945 Shannon wrote a paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Cryptography,” which was stamped SECRET and never saw the light of day. He published in 1948 an expurgated version of the 1945 paper with the title “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” The 1948 version appeared in the Bell System Technical Journal, the house journal of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and became an instant classic, at a time when the greatest leaps forward in communication were happening in the Bell Labs. It is the founding document for the modern science of information. After Shannon, the technology of information raced ahead, with electronic computers, digital cameras, the Internet, and the World Wide Web. Which is the 'flood' part of the book. All three sections are equally good, but the first two sections were less known to me. Excellent read.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Value of Thanks


The easiest way to happiness is one where you spend some amount of time every day reflecting on what you have to be thankful for, focusing on those positives, and appreciating them. The converse of that to let go of the things that are unchangable and not have that cloud over what is good and great in life. Easier said than done.
Thanksgiving is a time for doing just that--giving thanks. Families and friends get together to celebrate what we have. And the thanks giving does not have religious baggage involved. I heard a piece on 'This American Life' this weekend about siblings who are not able to have a meaningful sibling relationship because she is a non-religious Jew, and her brother has become a born-again evangelical Christian. They can't find a common ground upon which to meet because he believes she is damned. So religious holidays are out for them--too much tension. And in this example maybe they won't have overlapping things they are thankful for--maybe what they are grateful for are things other than each other. But I think it is brilliant to have a secular day of thanks.
I spent the weekend doing a mixture of what my everyday life contains: time with my nuclear family (some collegial conversations, some bickering), cooking, working, reading, cleaning up, and so on. In other words, nothing special, other than the fact that my child at college away from home was with us for the holiday. But that is what is great for me--that it is not a time to go overboard with specialness. It is a time to savor the ordinary and be grateful for it.
I am watching a BBC series set during WWII, which was a time that was not ordinary. Bombs were raining on the civilian population, young men were dying in droves, and food was scarce. Yet in the midst of it all, people were trying to do ordinary things--get married, get to work, get dinner on the table,. they would have loved to have nothing but ordinary things happen. It was hard to maintain moral standards in a time when bombs are dropping on children and you didn't know where your next meal would come from or what it would consist of. The Chinese curse of 'May you live in interesting times' comes to mind. I am thankful that despite all the challenges we face, that a global war is not a current problem.
So, moving forward into the end of the year festivities, I am trying to ride the tide created by an intense focus on thanks. May we all be able to live the serentity prayer: Please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cherry Mustard


I had a wonderful condiment when I ate at Luke in New Orleans--cherry mustard. It was served with a chocon de lait sandwich, and was a wonderful balance of sweet and tart. John Besh included the recipe in his cookbook, and since I am going back to New Orleans next month, I started thinking of some of the great food I had last summer there.
* 1/4 cup cherry juice (no sugar added)
* 1/4 cup ground mustard, such as Colman’s
* 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
* 1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar
* 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
* 1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
* 1 large egg
* 1 large egg yolk
* 2 tablespoons finely chopped dried cherries
1. Combine the cherry juice, ground mustard, vinegar, brown sugar, salt, and Worcestershire sauce in a medium heatproof, nonreactive bowl and whisk until smooth. Add the egg and egg yolk and whisk until evenly combined. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours.
2. Fill a medium saucepan with 1 inch of water and bring to a bare simmer over low heat. Remove the plastic wrap from the bowl of mustard and place the bowl over the simmering water. Cook, whisking constantly, until the mustard has thickened to the consistency of olive oil, about 10 minutes. (Check to make sure the water isn’t boiling by periodically removing the bowl from the saucepan using a potholder or dry towel. If the water is boiling, reduce the heat so the eggs don’t curdle.)
3. Remove the bowl from the saucepan, add the dried cherries, and stir to combine. Transfer the mustard to a nonreactive container with a tightfitting lid and cool completely.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Adults by Amy Espach


This book is Emily, aged 14 up to her late 20's and the relationship she has with a man over that period of time. There is a lot more to her story than just one guy, of course. Her parents divorce, she makes and loses friends, her father moves out of the country and in with another woman, having fathered a half-sister with yet another woman. It is not the fairy book childhood. But the realtionship that defines her life is one with her high school teacher, Johannes--who she calls Mr. Basketball. She begins sleeping with him when she is 15 years old, and she does so ardently, enthusiastically, and the teacher loves he back, no question about it. He is not just bedding an underaged girl, he is falling hard for her. Why? Well, he is one of those men who is not much more than a teen himself, in maturity if not age. He is 24 when the affair begins, and he still doesn't have sheets on his bed--it is like he was orphaned too early to learn the ecoutrements of a civilized life--like how to make your bed and cook your dinner.
The two meet up several times over Emily's subsequent life--she move on from Mr. Basketball, but when he shows back up, she is her 15 year old self again. Just a horny as before and unable to stop herself from literally jumping his bones. it is a story about how those first loves are intense loves--maybe not all that good for you, but very intense. And they don't fade away--those memory tracks about how you felt when you were with that person are hard to stamp out and intensely written. Be careful. That is how the story goes.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Brussel Sprouts with Marjoram and Pine Nuts


I got this recipe from my wonderful friend Chris, and I changed it a little bit, but it is a keeper. A great side for the Thanksgiving table.
* 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
* 1/4 cup pine nuts
* 1 1/2 pounds brussels sprouts, halved
* 1 cup broth
* 2 shallots, minced
* 1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram
* 1/4 cup half and half

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Preparation

Melt 1/2 tablespoon butter in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add nuts and stir until golden, about 3 minutes. Transfer nuts to small bowl. Melt 1/2 tablespoon butter in same skillet over medium heat. Add sprouts; stir 1 minute. Add broth; cover and simmer until sprouts are almost tender, about 7 minutes. Uncover and simmer until broth evaporates, about 5 minutes. Using wooden spoon, push sprouts to sides of skillet. Melt 1/2 tablespoon butter in center of same skillet. Add shallots; sauté until tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in marjoram, then cream. Simmer until sprouts are coated with cream, stirring frequently, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 4 hours ahead. Cover and chill. Stir over medium heat to rewarm.)

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje


Wow, I really loved this book. I am already a huge Ondaatje fan. It happened long ago, when I read 'In the Skin of a Lion'. His way with words is spectacular, and from the very beginning of every story he tells I am immediately wrapped up in, and then once I am done, I am enfolded in the cocoon of the story for days afterwards. He is thought provoking, but not directive about how you should react. It has been a long time between books--'Anil's Ghost' came out about a decade ago, so savor this one. It has to last a while.
The story takes place in the 1950's and the narrator is an 11-year old boy, Michael, who is for much of the story on a boat en route from Sri Lanka to England, where he reunites with his mother. he is traveling with his uncle and family, but he is equally influenced by two boys his own age on the boat, Cassius and Ramadhin. The title of the book, The Cat's Table, refers to the worst table on ship--it is diametrically opposed to the prestige of the Captain's Table, and it is physically as far from the coveted table as is physically possible. On the one hand, prestigious passengers are dining with the highest ranking member of the crew--on the other hand, the least prestigious passengers are dining with his cat. But Michael and his friends discover that there are some interesting characters indeed at the Cat's Table. The other key element of the book is the time the journey takes. This story could not take place in present time, because the boy would have been put on a plane and within 12 hours time he would have seen 6 movies and be at his destination, having interacted with no one along the way. In this tale, the 21 day journey is life changing for the boys, and how that unfolds is the story. Wonderful to read, even better to reflect on.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Turkey Day!


We love the Thanksgiving meal. We try to have it at least twice during the Thanskgiving weekend, and a few more times throughout the year. It is an easy meal to prepare, but full of comfort foods and not all that pricey to put on for a crowd--especially if you get a few turkeys at the bargain basement prices that abound this week.
All the Kline boys are home--not all of them are eating turkey these days, but to have everyone around the same table is very nice. My best tip for the day is to brine your turkey. Always. Never fail to do this step--it makes the turkey taste sublime. In the interest of full disclosure, I never make the turkey (in fact, I rarely cook meat--I leave that for my spouse, who does such a reliably excellent job of it that I have never felt the need to learn). But this is the easiest and most practical method, taken from Alton Brown.
He fills a large Igloo Cooler with 6 quarts hot water, 1 pound salt, 1 pound brown sugar, and stirs until well mixed. Let it cool it for 15-30 minutes. Add 5 pounds of ice to the brine mixture, and submerge the turkey. Make sure the turkey is covered with the ice water, and let sit for 8-16 hours. Because of all the ice, it's not necessary to refrigerate as long as the water remains cold and there's still ice in the cooler. If the ice thaws, place the bird in the refrigerator for the remainder of the time. That's it. Now you can smoke it or roast it or deep fry it or grill it--whatever you want, but brining helps make the turkey juicier and more flavorful throughout.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuko


Julie Otsuko, who wrote 'When the Emperor Was Devine', a book about a family interned during WWII, follows that book with this one. The Japanese American themes continue, although this one is more of a collage than a story. She tells the stories of picture brides, women who came from Japan to America, having seen only a picture of their intended husbands. The marriage was brokered by a middle man who had no hesitation about lying--the men were farm hands, rather than the professional men they were presented to the girls and their families as, and they wer older and coarser than what their supposed pictures revealed. Otsuko proceeds to tell us all the fates that befell these women. They fell in love on the boat, they were raped by their 'husbands', they were sold or stolen as prostitutes, they were shunned by their new communiteis, they labored in the fields--but rarely did they live the life they were trained for or promised. These are not happy stories, so maybe it is better to tell them as a whole rather than to dwell on the individual misery--and the book is moer of a novella, something you can sit down and read in an hour or two, so as to minimize the pain that each individiual woman endured. Nicely done and recommended.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Crazy, Stupid Love (2011)


Ok, to start off, it is a dumb title for a movie, but it is also a movie that is aptly named--you know what you are getting into right off the bat. No secrets. But it worked for me.
At it's heart, it is a study in the varieties of masculine sexual confusion--from start to finish (ok, there are no geriatric love affairs, so the waterfront is not completely covered, but it has all the rest). Steve Carell plays Cal Weaver, an average guy with a family, a suburban house, and a white collar job. He is reported to have a bad haircut and terrible fashion sense. Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who is an adept pickup artist in a local bar tells him this and then volunteers his services as coach in the game of seduction. Cal accepts the offer because his wife of more than two decades, Emily (Julianne Moore), has told him that she wants a divorce, and that she has cheated on him with a co-worker (Kevin Bacon) only slightly less nebbishy than Cal himself (she is not going way out of her comfort zone for her mid-life crisis). Nursing his self-pity at a sleek local bar, Cal meets Jacob, who finds him so pathetic he is motivated to help him, if only to shut him up. Jacob definitely does not see this guy as a threat--something that comes back to bite him later in the movie. In a determined, half-pathetic attempt to even the score with Emily, Cal sets out to score with as many women as he can. Complications, as the saying goes, ensue, but they are not necessarily the ones you might expect. This is unrealistic in many ways but very enjoyable, with all sorts of good actors.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum (1900)


I know, this book is old--written in 1900, it chronicles a trip that began five years before, and what travelogue withstands a century's test of time? This one. It is a remarkable volume that reads as modern as anything being written today, and is a good deal more entertaining than most travel tales.
It has been said that Joshua Slocum’s autobiographical account of his solo trip around the world is one of the most remarkable — and entertaining — travel narratives of all time. Agreed.
When he set off alone from Boston aboard the thirty-six foot wooden sloop Spray in April 1895, Captain Slocum went on to join the ranks of the world’s great circumnavigators — Magellan, Drake, and Cook. But by circling the globe without crew or consorts, Slocum would outdo them all: his three-year solo voyage of more than 46,000 miles remains unmatched in maritime history for courage, skill, and determination. And the scariest part of all is his journey from Boston back home at the end of the trip, so it is a thriller to the end.
Sailing Alone Around the World recounts Slocum’s wonderful adventures encountered along the way: hair-raising encounters with pirates off Gibraltar and savage Indians in Tierra del Fuego; raging tempests and treacherous coral reefs; flying fish for breakfast in the Pacific; and a hilarious visit with Henry (”Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”) Stanley in South Africa. A century later, Slocum’s incomparable book endures as of the greatest narratives of adventure I have ever read. Truely wonderful and highly recommended.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Everything Must Go (2011)


'Everything Must Go' is a dramatization of a Raymond Carver short story 'Why Don't You Dance?', with Will Ferrell playing the central character. Two things about that. I like a movie that only tries to cover the material in a short work of fiction. Short stories have to make their mark in a limited number of pages and so the action is swift and the message is straightforward. Second, Raymond Carver, while not a man I would wanted to even share a meal with, judging from his biography, is a singularly gifted short story writer. Robert Altman's 'Short Cuts', also based on Carver's short stories, is a masterpiece. And finally, Will Ferrell is a gifted dramatic actor--while I rarely find him even palatable as a comic actor, his serious roles have yet to fail to intrigue and entertain me.
Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, a man who drinks his way out of a job and a marriage, all on the same day. He isn't one of those flamboyant drunks, nor is he a happy drunk, or a charming drunk. He is a guy whose drinking has become the priority in his life. A sad and very common story. Nick wouldn't say that drinking is more important than his wife, but because he pays more attention to that than anything else in his life, it becomes the king of his existence.
It isn't true that you need to find your bottom before you're likely to stop drinking but that is the case here. Every bottom is different. Nick finds his on the front lawn of his house. His wife has moved all his belongings out of their house, changed the locks, alarmed the house, emptied their bank account and cancelled his credit cards. He deals with this by buying some beer and settling into his La-Z-Boy recliner.
Into this situation comes the muse. In this case it is an African-American teenager named Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a nice kid who rides up on his bike, asks the obvious questions and enters into a tacit understanding to become Nick's business partner in the selling off of all his worldly goods. This character is very well handled. He quietly but precisely shines a light onto Nick's circumstnances in a way no other person in Nick's life can. His timing is right. He also allows for Nick to shine through as more than a drunk who can be a bit of an ass. Through their friendship, Nick is able to find a possible path to redemption. Thisis not a feel good movie, but it is packed with meaning, and the occasional laugh. My favorite is when Kenny says to Nick that black people don't play soccer and Nick's response is "What do you mean, black people don't play soccer? Whole continents of black people play soccer." Indeed they do. Nick helps Kenny and Kenny helps Nick. The story is not overplayed and it works.