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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Singer Featherweight Sewing Machine

I just moved, and one of the things that I had to do was go through my fabric collection. This is something I haven't done in quite some time. I knew that it would be bad. My first hint was the summer that I decided to use up all my quilt blocks that I had made that did not end up in the final quilt. Things that just didn't work for a particular project, but I couldn't bear to just throw away, so instead I threw them in a box. Kind of like an intermediate step. Well the summer between the birth of my 3rd and 4th sons I got that box out and made baby quilts with these blocks until I ran out of them. I ended up with 70 baby quilts. That was a wonderful thing. The bad news? I only used up 2 boxes of fabric in the process. And I had about 30 boxes all told. That was the summer I stopped going to fabric stores. It was abundantly clear that I already had more fabric than I was going to be able to use in this lifetime.
I haven't quilted regularly over the past decade. There was only one thing my husband asked me to do as a result of this recent move and our having assessed all our worldly possessions. He asked me to quilt again. I have already planned my quilting space. It is in the room of my one remaining child at home's room. Once he moves out, I rearrange the room and make an area that I can quilt in. But getting back on the quilting horse is more complicated than that--one ingredient is taking classes again, and getting creative ideas and momentum back. A week ago, I was directed to a friend of mine's blog ( It is a wonderful blog, full of great thoughts, ideas, and creativity. The blog post that I read when I first read it was about her new Singer Featherweight sewing machine, and I felt a real pang of jealousy. The Featherweight is a real thing of beauty. It was made by Singer from 1933 to 1964, and weighs in at 11 pounds. I have seen quite a few of them at quilting classes that I have taken over the years, and the appeal is very clear. When machine piecing, the fact that it only goes forwards and backwards is not a liability, and the weight of the machine makes it easy to transport. My Bernina requires some serious upper body strength to haul around, and the older I get, the less appealing that is. So I got on Ebay, found one that looked just right which had a sale expiring in an hour, so I bid on it, and before you know it, I had myself a Featherweight of my very own. It is just adorable, sews like a dream, and makes me feel like I am committed to getting back to quilting now that I have the perfect portable machine.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Blueberry Cobbler

My husband does very little baking. He is good at it, but he prefers to make savory dishes, and he is very good at that, so we allow him to skip the baking. He has been cooking out of cookbooks that are written by New Orleans chefs since we got back from a short trip there (24 hours, 5 meals) which led him to Donald Link's Blueberry Cobbler. It is very good, and can be made with a variety of fruits (we were shy on the blueberries needed, so added enough sour cherries to make it work. Here is the recipe. Biscuit dough: 1 1/2 c all-purpose flour 1/3 c granulated sugar 3 tsp baking powder pinch of salt 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon 1/2 c butter (cold) 1 large egg, beaten 1/2 c milk Blueberries: 3/4 c granulated sugar 2 Tbsp cornstarch 1/3 c water 5-6 c blueberries zest and juice of 1/2 lemon 1/2 tsp vanilla Crumble topping: 1/3 c brown sugar, packed 1/3 c butter 3/4 c all-purpose flour Preheat oven to 400. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon in a bowl or food processor. Cut in the cold butter until the mixture is coarse and crumbly. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg and milk together, then stir into dry ingredients to form the dough. Set aside. Combine sugar and cornstarch with water in a saucepan. Heat until the sugar is dissolved. Add the blueberries, lemon zest and juice, and vanilla and simmer over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Pour the blueberry mixture into a buttered 8 x 12 dish. Top the fruit with spoonfuls of the dough (it does not have to cover the berries completely). Mix the brown sugar, butter, and flour, then sprinkle over the dollops of dough. bake for 25-30 minutes until the top is lightly browned and the dough has cooked through. Allow to cool at least 20 minutes before serving.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

South Riding (2011)

The series is situated in the British drama sweet spot: between the first and second world wars, when classes started to mix like never before in Britain. Based on Winifred Holtby’s 1936 novel, it tells the story of Sarah Burton, a modern-minded woman who is one of the 2 million British women left without a mate because 2 million British men died in the war. Sarah (Anna Maxwell Martin) has returned from London to her little home town, the fictional South Riding, which sits by the sea in Yorkshire. Here, she persuades the town council — chaired by Mrs. Beddows (“Downton Abbey’s” Penelope Wilton and just as good here) — to hire her as headmistress at the decaying high school for girls. She gets the job after making an emphatic plea for preparing South Riding’s young women for a changing world. One of the more influential men in town, Robert Carne (David Morrissey), isn’t too impressed with her talk and would yank his daughter, Midge, out of the school except that Sarah has somehow gotten through to the nervous girl and brought her out of her shell. He’s a dour sort — hard exterior, soulful center — struggling to keep his estate afloat and provide the best care for his mentally ill wife, who is institutionalized with no hope of recovery (a problem significantly compounded by the fact that his angry actions put her there in a rather direct manner). He falls for Sarah, as does another man, which provides some of the requisite romance for the tale (which does not have an altogether uplifting ending). All the while the town's elders are trying to make a buck on a public housing project that they are ostensibly doing for the greater good. My quarrel with the series is not that it borrows broadly from Dickens--Dickensian England did not end with his death, and so that part is at least accurate--but rather that the emotional aspects of the time are not much explored. Sarah is adamantly single, Robert eschews intimacy, and maybe that is reflective of the place and the time, but a bit more would have made it seem more real. In any case, if you cannot quite satisfy your 'Downton Abby' addiction, this is a good place to turn.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Looking Out the Bathroom Window

This is the view from my first floor bathroom window. My house has some spectacular views, and many of them are different from each other, but this is one of my favorites. It is very peaceful to look out, no matter what time of year it is, and see something that is both simple and beautiful. Which has led to my current dilemma. No curtains. To be sure, this is an exposed view--both inside looking out, but also potentially outside looking in. Granted, we have no neighbors. Not a one. So exposure hasn't been a reality up to this point. Various family members might be wandering about outside, you do have to keep track of them. But largely it has been a non-issue. So the view has won out over modesty. I can't yet put my finger on the quality that such a view imparts to my life, but I am sure that it is there. I just haven't been able to name it yet. The problem with a peaceful setting is that it is easy to not worry about it. Just to enjoy.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Macaroni and Cheese

I can't believe I haven't posted something about macaroni and cheese in the 2+ years I have been blogging, because it is my signature dish in a lot of ways. It is at least my signature comfort food dish. I have marked many children's childhood's with my macaroni and cheese. My kid's school would have a fund raiser and I would make macaroni and cheese. I would make it for my youngest son's class for lunch. I would make it when I was doing a 50 person dinner because it is an easy, make-ahead side dish. The ironic thing about my macaroni and cheese is that it is a very old recipe in my repertoire, dating back to my college days, when I lived in a housing co-op with 19 other people. We had a small handful of cookbooks, all of them vegetarian (it was the 70's, after all), and one of the ones I loved most was Anna Thomas' "Vegetarian Epicure". My macaroni and cheese is an adaptation of her recipe. It really is best if you make it and serve it right away, but the real beauty of this dish is that it is pasta you can make ahead of time. And fast. I recently one, and it took about 20 minutes. The recipe is easy doubled or tripled and so long as you have large enough pots, it does not add to the preparation time. Here is recipe (and some tips) for making it to bake later: The first key is to make a bechamel sauce: Melt 1/2 cup butter in a saucepan. Once it is bubbling, add a 1/2 c. of flour. Stir vigorously, letting it brown a bit. This is making a roux (if you have a roux stirrer, use it--it really helps. If you make this and love it, get a roux stirrer. You won't be sorry). Now add a quart of milk very slowly and in batches. At first, milk should be added until the sauce is no longer thick. This is the only tricky point in the whole recipe, because it tends to lump up if you do it too fast and it sticks to the bottom if you do it too slow. Once the sauce is not longer thick, let it cook a bit. The warmer it gets, the thicker it gets. At the first pause in the action, add a bay leaf, some salt, fresh ground pepper, garlic powder and then grate as much nutmeg as you can manage into the sauce. This is the secret ingredient in the bechamel sauce--it has to be fresh grated, and it is best if you do a lot. Gradually add the rest of the milk, and turn off. Meanwhile have a large pot of water with salt in it boiling on the stove. once it is at a rolling boil, add a pound of macaroni. Give it a quick stir, put the lid back on, and set the timer for 5 minutes. It won't be done then, but if you are making the macaroni ahead of time, under cook it significantly. At 5 minutes, drain it. At this point, I put the macaroni into the contained I am going to bake it in, stir in the cheese, and then pour the sauce over it. If I am making this fancy, I use Anna Thomas' suggested cheeses: fontina and gruyere. Another option is to grate up cheeses that you no longer have another use for that are in danger of going bad in your cheese drawer. But what I usually do is use pre-grated cheese. My favorites are parmesan, sharp cheddar and Monterrey jack. I use enough that it looks cheesey and the sauce should look like it is way too much. As the pasta sits, it will absorb the sauce, and the finished product will be flavorful without the pasta tasting overcooked. Sprinkle with panko. For baking to serve: Try to bring it up to room temperature beforehand. This is not always possible, and it is not completely necessary. If you can, then bake it for about 45 min. at 350 degrees. If you can't, it is more like an hour, and turn it up to 375 it isn't looking brown on top by the end.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

I Do (2010)

Only the French could do a film like this and get away with it. Here is the basic plot. Luis Costa (Alain Chabat) doesn't want to get married. An introduction, at breakneck pace and in black-and-white, shows us why. He grew up surrounded by women. After the early death of her beloved husband Hercules, the matriarch Genevieve (Bernadette Lafont) instituted a family council in which Luis is always overruled by the woman in his life--his mother and five sisters. By 43, he's happily single, with a job as a mixer of perfume - and a gorgeous apartment that's as tasteful as it is tidy, eating at his mother's place regularly and having his laundry done by his sisters. The sisters vote and agree he should marry; they choose women for him. He rejects all comers, with increasing hostility, until he meets Emma (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the sister of his colleague. He has a plan. He hires her to be his fiance. Her main job is to get his family to adore her, and then to abandon him at the altar, leaving him so understandably heart-broken that he cannot consider marrying. Silly plan, predictably fails, and equally predictably, Luis and Emma fall for each other. Old-fashioned doesn't really describe it. At the same time, the film does have some contemporary resonance. They are alone without being loners. Emma's goal is to adopt a baby from Brazil, without a partner; Luis wants neither partner nor children. There's a strong sense that they're missing out, but don't see it. If you love French Romantic comedies, this is a good representation of the genre.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Paula Deen and Diabetes

Frank Bruni's op/ed piece in the New York Times said it best. The "I told you so." response to her announcement at first blush seems warranted. But on closer examination, the same charges could be leveled at many a cooking show. The chef's involved peddle food that almost literally stands the healthy food pyramid on it's head, all the while living a different lifestyle themselves. They prepare a multi-course feast that is steeped in calories, only to take small bites of it themselves and then go hit the gym. If they are eating the food and look thin, bulimia is another possible explanation. Bruni had a dietitian take a peek at Deen's recipes compared to other chef's and found they were comparable, and at times even less caloric. Deen's announcement about her diabetes came off as self-serving (she should have tried for a lapse between sharing her diagnosis and her contract to promote an oral hypoglycemic medication. That might have helped a bit), but at least it was an honest portrayal of the consequences of eating the food she prepares--and she always looked like she ate food. I also bristle at the condemnation of someone for not making their personal medical history public information. It isn't actually our right to know. In any case, it allows for an open dialogue about food and contributions to obesity.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pork Loin Braised in Milk

Molly Stevens new cookbook, 'All About Roasting', is very good, but we remain faithful to her earlier cookbook, 'All About Braising'. This is NOT a kosher meal...and it doesn't look nearly as good as it tastes (the good news is that the kitchen smells fantastic and olfaction is very important in taste. I served this with pasta with pesto, and it was both simple and delicious. 4 garlic cloves, peeled - three slivered, one smashed 1 tsp. dried sage 1/2 tsp. fennel seeds, lightly cracked 1/2 tsp. sea salt 1/2 tsp. fresh-ground pepper 2 1/2 lb. boneless pork rib roast, tied 2 tbsp. olive oil 1 1/4 C whole milk Squeeze of lemon juice 2 tsp. half-and-half or heavy cream In a small bowl, mix the slivered garlic, sage, fennel seeds, salt, and pepper. Poke one-inch holes all over the pork with a paring knife and stuff garlic slivers in the holes, then rub any remaining seasoning over the surface of the meat. Wrap the pork up and stick it in the fridge for a few hours, if you’ve got time. Heat the oven to 275° and locate a pot that’s not too much bigger than the pork. Melt the butter with the oil over medium heat, then toss the pork in there and brown it on all four sides. Take the pork out and put it on a plate. Pour off all but one tablespoon of the fat from the pot. Add the remaining smashed garlic and cook over medium heat until it’s fragrant, about thirty seconds. Pour the milk in the pot slowly, so it doesn’t foam up too much, bring to a boil, and scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to dislodge the tasty brown drippings. Put the pork back in the pot, along with any juices that pooled on the plate, then cover and put the whole deal in the oven. After about ten minutes, check to make sure the milk isn’t boiling too much, and if it is, turn the heat down a bit. Braise, covered, for another thirty-five minutes, then flip the meat over and leave the lid slightly ajar so the steam can escape. Braise for another thirty-five minutes or so, until the pork reaches 150° on an instant-read thermometer. Remove the pork and let it rest on a plate or carving board, tented with foil to stay warm. At this point, your kitchen should smell heavenly and the liquid that’s left in the pot should look kind of curdled. Skim off as much fat as you can, then put the pot back on the stove and boil the sauce down until it’s caramel-colored and the consistency of a loose, curdled custard. Add the lemon juice and taste the sauce for seasoning. Finally, to make the sauce more attractive, add the half-and-half and zip with an immersion blender (or in a real blender). Cut the strings off the pork, slice it up, spoon the sauce over it, and serve.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Moneyball (2011)

Moneyball is a sports movie, but you do not have to love baseball to love it. It tells the true story of Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt. Beane was a high school baseball star who never quite clicked in the big leagues and became the general manager of the 2001-2002 Oakland A’s, a small market team with a small market budget. The film opens with them losing their three biggest players. The team cannot win a championship, compete financially, and is losing momentum. Fast. Beane is good at what he does but his budget is too small for the quality of his work to make a difference. He has a team of scouts who are old school baseball and it is dawning on him that the old way of doing business is going to leave the A's near the bottom of the American League West, with no hope in sight. Beane stumbles upon young Yale graduate, Peter Brand played by Jonah Hill. Brand, a composite character based on Bean’s actual consultants, uses a system called saber-metrics to turn recruiting baseball players into an equation, replacing intuition with statistics and numbers. Beane and Brand calculate a seemingly laughable team, with no support from the other scouts, who are set in their old-fashioned ways, superstitious, and are wary of new trends (one memorable scene has them discounting a player because his girlfriend isn't pretty enough for them--what man with enough confidence to be a big league baseball player would date a 6?). Despite disagreements with the team manager Art Howe, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who doesn’t realize the genius of Brand’s math, Beane and Brand’s method establishes a legacy. You don't have to be a long time movie watcher to figure out early on that they are going to have success--but it is not over-the-top success. Other teams, teams with bigger budgets, pick up their methods and use them to their success. But the process that Beane went through to make the decision to turn down a college scholarship to Stanford and go directly to major league baseball--for the money--taught him something, and he uses that to chose things that matter to him over money. It is a good lesson, hidden in the folds of a sport film.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

South Carolina Primary

I like Barney Frank’s quote the best, where he said ‘I never thought I’d live such a good life that I would see Newt Gingrich be the nominee of the Republican party.’ Seriously, the guy is incredible. Incredible narcissist, incredible brass, incredible resilience. They called Reagan the Teflon man, but Newt has it all over him. Now admittedly, South Carolina is in his Southern stomping grounds and has a Conservative base that would resonate with what Newt has to offer. But still. Really? I am not sure what it is with Christian conservatives and adultery. As long as you are a Republican, then it seems to be infinitely forgivable. Perhaps it is because it is so common. If they didn't forgive there wouldn't be anybody left in politics. I am personally not supportive of adultery--if you want out of your marriage, just say so. Make the break. Adultery is hedging your bet. Having your cake and eating it to, with compulsory lying heaped onto the already unpleasant pile. It says that you are more important than your spouse (as well as your children, should you have them) and none of that is appealing to me. On the other hand, I don't expect or demand marital fidelity in my elected representatives. What I do expect is some consistency in values. If it is okay for you, then it should be okay for everyone. But that sort of logic is sorely lacking in Mr. Gingrich. And that has been successful for him, so maybe he is on to something. Do as I say, not as I do. I wish I didn't find him so irritating because it would be really nice to celebrate this win.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Miniature Trifle

I have been in a bit of a baking slump. My spouse thinks that it is because I have not hit my baking rhythm in our new house. I know where everything is, I just don't know how I am going to put it together to bake with ease. The other factor is that for over a year we have been working on decreasing the volume in our freezers, and a lot of the build up was baked goods. I was not incentivized to bake, and therefore I didn't. So when I have been pressed to make dessert of late, I have been looking to options that do not require me to bake. I have had some leftover cake (someone else's creation--when you are not baking, the most common answer you give when asked what can be brought to dinner is 'dessert'. Sometimes that leaves you with leftover cake). I have always been a big fan of trifle, but I have recently been making it in smaller, individual versions. I made it last week in wine glasses and this week I made it in tiny ramekins for a dinner where there would be multiple desserts, so I wanted to give people more of a dessert bite than a dessert overdose. This version has small cubes of cake on the bottom, a dribble of liquor, then a tablespoon of nonfat vanilla yogurt (Brown Cow is my favorite), some sliced strawberries and a few blueberries, then topped off with whipped cream. They are best if they sit for several hours before served.

Friday, January 20, 2012

My Last Five Girlfriends (2009)

We meet Londer Duncan as he decides to put an end to any future painful romantic experiences, which for him means he must end his life (that is the big leap here--why not celibacy? Well, he does answer that question at the end). Over the next hour or so, we learn how he has come to this point. He reveals the five causes leading to this tragic effect: his failed relationships. While, it might sound trite, My Last Five Girlfriends is a captivating whirlwind of a tale, with hints of surrealism and wry quirkiness. As we witness each relationship in Duncan’s life promisingly unfurl and then painfully diffuse, the film cleverly drifts in and out of surreal imagery. For starters, as a transition to his subsequent female endeavors, he wanders through a fantastical theme park called "Duncan World." While each initially entice with the promise of quick thrills and endorphin boosts, things begin to excel too quickly or soar too high, and the landing becomes a painful splattering on the concrete. His relationships do tend to crash land in this way rather than just petering out. The thing about this movie is that our hero really pretty much screws up most of these relationships, either in part or full on, and while he voices an understanding of what went wrong, his assessment is completely out of synch with what we the viewer sees--so as he hurdles into the next relationship, we see all the pitfalls long before he does. It is classic British romantic comedy--you can see why their reputation as rather bumbling lovers comes from, and you can laugh with them, rather than at them, in this light movie.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

This book answers the question of "Do people act rationally when they are engaged in spending lots of money--buying and selling stocks, getting mortgages, etc?" Economists think yes, but psychologists beg to differ. The author is a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics, so he has some street cred in this area. I really loved this book--it was 'Blink' with more data, and lots of examples of how you can break down the decision making process. Kahneman builds an understandable (for the lay person) framework for how, or why, the mind reasons as it does. There are two factors at play--which he calls System 1 and System 2 (which is my least favorite part of the book--it would have been nice if they were named in some way that related to how they operate). System 2 is your conscious, thinking mind. We conceive of this active consciousness as the principal actor, the “decider” in our lives. System 2 thinks slowly; it considers, evaluates, reasons. Its work requires mental effort—multiplying 24 by 17 or turning left at a busy intersection. We attribute most of our opinions and decisions to this thinking, reasonable fellow. For Kahneman, however, the main player is System 1. This is the agent of our automatic and effortless mental responses. System 1 can add single-digit numbers and fill in the phrase “bread and —.” It is equipped with a nuanced picture of the world, the product of retained memory and learned patterns of association (“Florida/old people”) that enable it to spew out a stream of reactions, judgments, opinions. System 1 can detect a note of anger in a voice on the telephone; it forms snap judgments about those we meet, Presidential candidates, investments that we might be considering. The flaw in this remarkable machine is that System 1 is faster, surer of itself, and it works with as little or as much information as it has. System 1 has no ability to say 'garbage in, garbage out'. Once these two ways of thinking are thoroughly explained, he spends the rest of the book showing us how and why that matters. He gives some great examples of how differently the same 'factual' information can be perceived, depending on how it is presented. It is wonderfully readable, and very thought-provoking.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011)

First off, let's set the record straight. Mere Brother Ki Dulhan is a straight ahead Bollywood romantic comedy. There is the requisite romantic triangle, the impressive singing and dancing that occurs at every emotional decision point in the film that is so spectacular and a signature of the genre. As one critic said, it is a very pleasant movie to see once, but you will not feel compelled to watch it again. This is no 'Lagaan'. The reason that I bring it up at all, other than that it has been a year since I have seen a Bollywood movie that I have liked as much, and because there is a fair amount of English, so if you get subtitle fatigue, this is a movie that moves between languages freely, and while there are subtitles throughout, half the time you can understand the dialogue. The thing I liked about this was that it portrays an India that is betwixt and between, in a cultural sense. The lead female character, Dimple (Katrina Kaif), has grown up in London. She wears modern and very revealing clothes, is wildly flirtatious and salacious, but she is convincingly offended when a boy she has swung her hips at and thrown a beverage to suggests that she sleep with him. The crux of the story is a classic love triangle, Indian style. Kuhn and Luv are brothers--Luv is in London, Kuhn in India. Luv decides that it is time for him to marry, and while he would like his parents to be a part of the process, he assigns Kun the job of making the final decision--which he does brilliantly. So well, in fact, that he himself falls in love with her as well. But fails to tell her until after the engagement--so the rest of the story is how are they going to get both of their families out of this with them married to each other and their reputations intact.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Mushroom Barley Soup

There is nothing new about this soup--I have done nothing to make it new or different. But it is really spectacular in it's simplicity. It requires very little in terms of ingredients. Start with a chopped onion, saute it with a clove or two of minced garlic. Once they have softened, add a 1/2 pound of sliced mushrooms. You can also add some thyme, but I didn't this time. Once the mushrooms have lost most of their moisture, I add 6 cups of excellent stock and 1/3 c. of barley. For some reason I cannot recall (nor can I justify), I have about 8 cups of barley. Since barley expands to about 12 times it's original size when cooked, this is enough barley to feed a soup kitchen. I should be making something with barley every week if I had a proper commitment to emptying out my pantry. I am not up to that task. Either task, actually--not the barley surplus nor the pantry turnover. But this soup, after simmering on very low heat for 45 minutes is fantastic in an earthy (and inexpensive) way. I tossed in some left over pot roast shredded, but it can be completely vegetarian and equally good.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Stephen Bloom: Satire, Parody, or Plain Old Mean-Spirited?

Stephen Bloom alleged on NBC recently that he was misinterpreted by Iowans and others. He did not mean for his piece in the Atlantic to be taken at face value, but rather that it was a combination of parody and satire. We misunderstood him (or are too dense to see the skill of his work). So, what to make of this? First off, the article appeared in the Atlantic. This is not the Onion. The magazine is not widely renowned for parody, and therefore one could be excused for missing it. Secondly, Stephen Bloom is a journalism professor. Not a profession highly associated with satire--if he were to appear on The Daily Show, or better yet, The Colbert Report and make these statements, we might excuse it as satire. But those guys are not journalists--despite the fact that Americans who cite the Daily Show as their main source of news are better informed than their fellow countrymen, these guys are comedians. Smart, well informed, clever, and witty men, yes, but comedians. We get the satire. So the context is wrong. But how about the content? Well, the best of satire should deliver it's rapier wit with such subtly that the intended victim is unaware they have been wounded. That certainly was not the case here. Then there is the bottom line--that both satire and parody are poking fun at something. The author should identify the problem, offer a solution to the problem and be perplexed, annoyed, and perturbed that everyone else, or at least the object of the satire, is too dense to see the validity of such a brilliant solution. So in the end, Professor Bloom, while failing to be effective as a satirist, is still poking fun at Iowa. The piece he wrote wasn't clever. It exaggerated things that occur on occasion without the wit to show what solution he proposed. So it came across as bitter. And it seemed to me that it is he who is sad, not those of us who live here and thrive.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I had heard all sorts of great things about this book, but the title did not draw me in--if only I had seen the cover, because that is something that would have piqued my interest. But pick it up I did, finally, and it is one of the best books of fiction that I have read recently. Astounding, particularly in it's story line, which one reviewer I read called magical realism. Whatever you call it, it works. Ava, a 13 year old girl who has been raised and home schooled on a Florida island, is the heroine of this novel. She is introduced to us in her family's theme park, Swamplandia (which from the descriptions in the book is aptly named). Ava's mother, Hilola Bigtree, is a force of nature--she is what drives the family and she is the glue that holds them together. She is a famous alligator wrestler, beautiful, generous, and talented--and the star attraction at Swamplandia. Ava's father, Chief Bigtree, a working class guy who has big dreams for Swamplandia that are never going to happen. Ava's older brother, Kiwi, doesn't buy those dreams; he wants to go to a real school on the mainland, but is inexorably tied into his family of origin. Ava's older sister, Osceola, 16, believes she can communicate with ghosts, and seems prone to dangerous liaisons until she gets on proper medication. This strange but entertaining world is turned upside down when Ava's mother dies of cancer--swiftly and suddenly the amazing Hilola is gone, and just as quickly, so is Swamplandia--the various Bigtree offspring deal with the trauma differently, and it is a very good story indeed.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Debt (2011)

The Debt is a drama-thriller based on an Israeli film of the same name. It focuses mainly on the baggage that three Nazi hunters carry with them for 30 years before a turn of events puts into question their loyalty to Israel, each other, and the greater good. Helen Mirren stars as Rachel, the protagonist, who is seen throughout the film reflecting on her past as a Mossad (The National Intelligence Agency of Israel) agent during her team’s mission to capture a notorious Nazi doctor who performed atrocious experiments in concentration camps. Rachel is the only woman in the three-person team, and her emotions scream through the camera—her uncertainty and the tension she feels are everywhere. The team includes David (Sam Worthington, Ciarán Hinds plays him in the present-day) whose sorrowful expressions are hard to understand until we learn his whole family perished in the Holocaust. Marton Csokas is Stefan (Tom Wilkinson plays the older character), the cocky leader of the group who is very hard to empathize with as the film drives into complexity. The setting mostly goes back and forth between East Berlin (1965) and Israel (1997). Most of the events that occur are seen through Rachel’s eyes, played by Jessica Chastain (who I have seen twice before this month, in Tree of Life and The Help). The Mossad agents are easy to imagine as real individuals. Although they are determined to fulfill their mission, you see their anxiety everywhere and feel the past of the Holocaust haunting their memories. And although the film is not really a psychological thriller, the Nazi doctor (played by Jesper Christensen who captures the immense cruelty of the doctor so subtly) gets into all of their heads in a bad bad way. Very effective. This is one of those rare movies that will seize you and keep you guessing as the plot unfolds, slowly unearthing the meaning behind the title.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Daughter of the American Revolution

Wave that flag, wave it high and wide. My grandmother was that kind of a daughter of the American Revolution. Our family has our roots in the religious freedom side of emigration to America, and were firmly entrenched by the time the Revolutionary War rolled around. They came initially to Massachusetts, but like many found the land quickly became too crowded and they went northward to find their fortunes, settling in southern Maine. The DAR, founded in 1890 and headquartered in Washington, DC, is a volunteer women's service organization dedicated to promoting and preserving American history, and securing America's future through the education of children. Any woman is eligible for membership who is not less than eighteen years of age and can prove lineal, bloodline descent of an ancestor who aided in achieving American independence. I just read the Willard Sterne Randal biography of Ethan Allen, and his family history resonated with some of my own (except for the folk hero aspect of course--I resonate more with Ethan Allen's siblings and my Revolutionary fore bearers). His father and grandfather took the family further away from the center of Puritan civilization in search of greener pastures, and while they ended up in Connecticut, Ethan Allen went into the more controversial territory of what is now Vermont. My family stuck with less contentious land, but were made of that hardy stock that is associated with New Englanders of the 18th century. The weather alone was enough to distinguish them as long suffering. My grandmother was born into the end of the 19th century into a farm that was not unlike that of the 18th century--her mother canned fruits and vegetables. She embroidered and she made clothing. I left New England over a 1/4 century ago, and I did not grow up there, but some of those traits of my early ancestors resonate with me today. So while I don't entirely share the politics of a daughter of the American Revolution, I do share those genes.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Corn Syrup: How Much is Too Much?

I was stopped at a train crossing with my husband recently and after 10 minutes of watching tanker after tanker of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) roll by, it got me thinking. What an awful lot of sweetener on the rails in Iowa. I am not one of those who thinks that HFGS is in and of itself the devil incarnate. I think it is a highly processed food by the time it is created--anyone who has gnawed on a corn stalk can tell that this is not edible as it grows out of the ground--and it then goes on to be added to highly processed food. It is the antithesis to some of the principles that Michael Pollan espouses in his book 'In Defense of Food'. Your grandmother would not recognize it. It is not found on the periphery of the grocery store. The fact that it is plant based is about it;s only saving grace. The real problem is not so much what it is, but that we ingest so much of it. On average, we each ingest 60 pounds per year--and since there are some of us who are not routinely eating mas produced highly processed foods, some people are getting more. Each of these tankers hold 67,000 gallons of HFCS, which is only enough for about 1,000 people each year. Wow, that is A LOT of sugar. Who is eating this? According to the CDC, quite a few of us. They state that 50% of the US population consumes a sugar drink on any given day, and 25% of us consume more than one. The problem is not related to eating out--half of these drinks are consumed at home, and only 1/6 are consumed in a restaurant. This cannot be good for us. As far as I am concerned, the debate is not so much is it worse than cane sugar, but rather that too much is just not good. How to combat this? Well, the first place to start is with the cost. The price is artificially low for HFCS, because of subsidies, and that needs to go away--poor people use HFCS products at a higher rate than middle income consumers. Time to look at food subsidies for healthier foods. As the cost of medical care continues to sky rocket with no end in sight, we need all sorts of health reform--not just making sure that people have health insurance, but also that they have access to food that is healthy. Prevent the disease so you don't need to treat it. Meanwhile we consume 280,200 of these tankers full of HFCS each and every year.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sarah's Key (2011)

This is the second movie made from a book that I loved that I have seen this month and felt that the film was up to the task of conveying the emotional content of the book. This is in part due to the exceptional performance of Kristin Scott Thomas as an American journalist living in Paris in the early 21st century. This is the second French film that I have seen her play a lead role in recently (the first being 'I've Loved You So Long')--she plays a woman whose first language is English in both films, and seemingly effortlessly moves between the two throughout the film. I love that about the movie--the Germans speak German, the French speak French, and The Americans speak English. There are subtitles. It feels real. "Sarah's Key" goes back and forth between events in 2002 and what happened 60 years earlier during the city's infamous Vélodrome d'Hiver roundup of July 16, 1942, when French officials and police, not Germans, rounded up 13,000 of the city's Jews and herded them together for days in horrible conditions in one of the city's indoor bicycle-racing tracks before dispatching them first to a transit camp and finally to Auschwitz. The film on that July day in 1942 in the Marais district apartment of the Starzynskis, with the family being rounded up under frightening circumstances, 10-year-old Sarah (an exceptional Mélusine Mayance) impulsively instructs her younger brother to hide in the bedroom cupboard. She then locks him in, instructing him not to leave until she comes to get him (with unfortunate consequences). Thomas's character is married to a man whose great grandparents moved into the apartment after the Starzynskis are forcibly moved out--so that is the connection. The movie centers on Sarah, who miraculously escapes the fate of the rest of her family, and is raised in a family that both loves and protects her into adulthood. But she hasn't really escaped. She is hostage to her guilt, her remorse, and her losses. Thomas goes about finding her story, and breathing life into it, even at the expense of her personal life. The film is exquisite in it's attention to emotional detail, which is pitch perfect. In the final analysis, we aren't even sure what happened with Sarah but we recognize the devastating events of her childhood wore her out in adulthood. Jean Luc Godard said it best: "A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end... but not necessarily in that order." Sarah's Key is spectacular.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


I recently read the blog of a colleague of mine (excellent blog. check it out: and was impressed by his up-front and continuous devotion to his wife. I, too, love my spouse. It is such a gift, to be able to live with someone you are still crazy about, after literally decades of sharing living space. But I have not been nearly as diligent as Dr. Amos in expressing those feelings. Shame on me.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of my husband's life on earth. He was born at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. There was rioting on University of Mississippi campus following African American student James Meredith's attempt to enroll, which ended with federal troops and U.S. marshals taking control. That same year Gregory Peck won Best Actor for his role in 'To Kill a Mockingbird', so we were starting to take the issue of racism into the popular media. There have been changes since then, but not as dramatic as one might hope. We were deeply embroiled in the Cold War. America is good at boots on the ground war, but we were less adept at secret wars that involved spies, indirect threats, and games of chicken. In the end, we out-spent them--game, set, match--it was a great strategy, and if you ignore the debt issue, it was spectacularly successful. Kennedy was president, and we got embroiled in that whole Cuban Missile Crisis fiasco that made it so impossible for us to go see a bona fide Communist country operating in the modern world. Technology's star was rising. John Glenn circled the earth. The photocopier was increasingly in use. The music that was on the rise then was the music we still listen to--the Beatles and Bob Dylan. It was a time of great change, and it hasn't stopped. So thank you, 1962, for delivering this man into the world. I won't forget it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Dr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

Mr. Fox is a modern day Gothic novel--a story that contains both horror and romance. Which is true of the front story, and then there is a retelling of the Bluebeard myth throughout that achieves a multifactorial Gothic tone. The surface story is that Mr. Fox, an acclaimed novelist and husband to fellow novelist, Daphne Fox, has a muse, Mary Foxe (the names are similar and it is not an accident). She is one of the characters in his books, but she is not two dimensional, at least not by the time we meet him. She is up and about, accusing Mr. Fox of serial murder. How so? He invariably kills off all his female protagonists. She insists he must stop, or she will do the job for him. Their interactions are witty repartee, fun to follow, well written, but only part of what is going on in the novel. Woven into the text are various retellings of the Bluebeard myth. Oyeyemi delights in turning the fairy tale on its head. She locates in the Bluebeard story not only female loss of identity but male emotional imprisonment – a locked room containing not the bloody cadavers of previous wives, but the elusive authentic self of the husband. Neither are free, both are in their ways captive. Mr. Fox and Mary Foxe are similarly interwoven with each other. There is a jumbled feel to the book--but it is enjoyable, funny, smart, well written and entertaining. Don't miss it.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Angel Biscuits

We have been baking out of John Besh's 'My Family Table' cookbook, and these biscuits are marvelous--you can freeze them the next morning and bake them anytime you want--added bonus~ * 1 package active dry yeast * 5 cups all-purpose flour * 1/4 cup sugar * 2 tablespoons baking powder * 11/2 teaspoons salt * 2 cups buttermilk * 1 cup (2 sticks) butter 1. Dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup warm water. Sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the buttermilk and dissolved yeast and mix well. Using a pastry knife, cut the butter into the mixture. 2. Since this makes a light, fairly wet dough, sprinkle 1?2 cup of flour on the counter before you roll out the dough. Roll out the dough into a rectangle. Fold the two sides in, making a triple layer of dough. Cut the dough into 3-inch circles or squares. Place on a nonstick baking sheet, cover loosely, and refrigerate overnight. 3. The next morning, preheat the oven to 400 degree. Bake for 15–20 minutes, until golden brown.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

This won the National Book Award for 2011, and it is not an uplifting read. Brace yourself. It is a fiercely poetic novel that takes place in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Miss., in the 10 days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. On one level, “Salvage the Bones” is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be devastated by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel powerful, though, is the way the author, without a hint of pretension, enmeshes us in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars and then evokes the tenacious passion and desperation that you would expect to find in a classic tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is Esch, a pregnant 14-year-old girl, the only daughter among four siblings whose mother died during the birth of the last one. Precocious and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases that reflect the poverty that defines her community. Everything here is gritty, raw and alive. The book does not end altogether well, but people do survive, on many levels. Unique and compelling.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Lemon and Pink Grapefruit Marmalade

My eldest son heard about this recipe and the cookbook it came out of, on a Splendid Table podcast, went to the public library, did not pass 'Go', and made this splendid marmalade. * 1 pound lemons (preferably Lisbon), cut into eighths * 1 pound seeded lemons, halved crosswise, each half cut lengthwise into quarters and sliced thinly crosswise * 3 3/4 pounds pink grapefruits * 5 pounds white cane sugar * 2 or 3 extra lemons, to make 5 ounces strained freshly squeezed lemon juice Instructions * Day 1 * 1. Place the lemon eighths in a nonreactive saucepan where they will fit snugly in a single layer. Add enough cold water for the fruit to bob freely. Cover tightly and let rest overnight at room temperature. * Day 2 * 2. Prepare the cooked lemon juice: Bring the pan with the lemon eighths to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to medium. Cook the fruit at a lively simmer, covered, for 2 to 3 hours, or until the lemons are very soft and the liquid has become slightly syrupy. As the lemons cook, press down on them gently with a spoon every 30 minutes or so, adding a little more water if necessary. The water level should stay consistently high enough for the fruit to remain submerged as it cooks. * 3. When the lemons are finished cooking, strain their juice by pouring the hot fruit and liquid into a medium strainer or colander suspended over a heatproof storage container or nonreactive saucepan. Cover the entire setup well with plastic wrap and let drip overnight at room temperature. * 4. Meanwhile, prepare the sliced lemons: Place the slices in a wide stainless-steel kettle and cover amply with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain, discarding the liquid. Return the lemon slices to the kettle and cover with 1 inch cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, decrease the heat to medium, and cook at a lively simmer, covered, for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the fruit is very tender. As the fruit cooks, stir it gently every 15 minutes or so, adding a little more water if necessary. The water level should stay consistently high enough for the fruit to remain submerged as it cooks. Remove the pan from the heat, cover tightly, and let rest overnight at room temperature. * 5. Last, prepare the grapefruits: Cut them in half, squeeze the halves, and strain their juice. Cover the juice and place it in the refrigerator. Put the juiced grapefruit halves in a large nonreactive kettle and cover them amply with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to medium and cook at a lively simmer for 5 minutes. Drain, discarding the liquid. Repeat this process, then return the blanched grapefruit halves to the kettle and add cold water to cover. Bring the halves to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to medium-low and cook, covered, at a lively simmer for 1 to 2 hours, or until the fruit is easily pierced with a skewer. As the grapefruit cooks, press down on it gently with a spoon every 30 minutes, adding more water if necessary. The water level should stay consistently high enough for the fruit to remain submerged as it cooks. When the grapefruit is tender, remove the pan from the heat, cover tightly, and let rest overnight at room temperature. * Day 3 * 6. Place a saucer with five metal teaspoons in a flat place in your freezer for testing the marmalade later.Remove the plastic wrap from the lemon eighths and their juice and discard the lemons. Strain the juice well through a very fine-mesh strainer to remove any lingering solids. * 7. Prepare the grapefruit: Remove the grapefruit halves from their kettle, reserving the cooking liquid. Over a large bowl, use a soup spoon to scoop the flesh from each grapefruit half. Then, take each half and, cradling it in one hand, use the spoon to gently scrape its interior of excess pith and fibers. Repeat with the rest of the halves, going around each one two or three times until its interior is smooth and its rind is a uniform thickness. Cut each grapefruit half into 5 equal strips, then cut each strip crosswise into thick slices and reserve. Strain the scraped pith and fibers, along with the mushy interiors of the grapefruits, back into the cooking liquid, letting them drip for several minutes. Discard the solids. Pour the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer. * 8. In a large mixing bowl, combine the sugar, strained grapefruit cooking liquid, reserved fresh grapefruit juice, reserved grapefruit rinds, cooked lemon juice, fresh lemon juice, and lemon slices and their liquid, stirring well. Transfer the mixture to an 11- or 12-quart copper preserving pan or a wide nonreactive kettle. * 9. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Cook at a rapid boil until the setting point is reached; this will take a minimum of 30 minutes, but may take longer depending on your individual stove and pan. Initially, the mixture will bubble gently for several minutes; then, as more moisture cooks out of it and its sugar concentration increases, it will begin foaming. Do not stir it at all during the initial bubbling; then, once it starts to foam, stir it gently every few minutes with a heatproof rubber spatula. As it gets close to being done, stir it slowly every minute or two to prevent burning, decreasing the heat a tiny bit if necessary. The marmalade is ready for testing when its color darkens slightly and its bubbles become very small. * 10. To test the marmalade for doneness, remove it from the heat and carefully transfer a small representative half-spoonful to one of your frozen spoons. It should look shiny, with tiny bubbles throughout. Replace the spoon in the freezer for 3 to 4 minutes, then remove and carefully feel the underside of the spoon. It should be neither warm nor cold; if still warm, return it to the freezer for a moment. Tilt the spoon vertically to see whether the marmalade runs; if it does not run, and if its top layer has thickened to a jelly consistency, it is done. If it runs, cook it for another few minutes, stirring, and test again as needed. * 11. When the marmalade has finished cooking, turn off the heat but do not stir. Using a stainless-steel spoon, skim off any surface foam and discard. Pour the marmalade into sterilized jars and process--they recommend doing it in the oven.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Jerusalem: A Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

This book takes the history of the old city from its beginnings as a fortified village through every conquest or occupation – Canaanite, Israelite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, Seleucid, Roman, Byzantine, Ummayad, Abassid, Fatimid, Seljuk, Crusader, Saracen, Tatar, Mamluk, Ottoman, British, Jordanian and finally Israeli. There is a welcome dispassionate approach to the constantly shifting occupation of a city that is arguably the spiritual center of three religions--and has the battle scars to show for it. How power transferred hands and what effect it had are laid out chapter by chapter, chronologically, so that centuries pass in a matter of pages. So what happens? Pretty much everything you can think of. Rival places of worship were destroyed and new ones constructed with the stones of earlier buildings, thus making Jerusalem the most complicated archaeological site in the world. Populations were slaughtered or sold into slavery, then later replaced by new waves of immigration. Montefiore's book, packed with fascinating and often grisly detail, is a gripping account of war, betrayal, looting, rape, massacre, sadistic torture, fanaticism, feuds, persecution, corruption, hypocrisy and spirituality. Which is true but makes the book sound gruesome--it is not. it is a wonderful read, and I would especially recommend it if you are going to visit the city.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Help (2011)

First off, I think it is very challenging to successfully adapt a popular book to the screen. This is particularly challenging when the novel has a high emotional content, because there are so many more ways to demonstrate that in written form than in film--and this movie is an excellent adaption of the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. The book revolves around the lives of African-American's in the South at the dawning of the Civil Rights movement. Racism is considered normal--it is so rare to be treated equally that when it happens there is profound distrust of the situation. When will this blow up all over me is on the tip of the tongue of every black person treated with decency. That is a bad bad situation, and the film doesn't lay it on too thick, but it is in every scene. The novel and the movie focus primarily on the day to day lives of domestic help. Maids are routinely talked about as if they are not there, treated like they are indentured servants, and as if they have no ambitions beyond their current demeaning jobs. When a maid is fired for using the indoor bathroom rather than going out in the middle of hurricane strength gales it is not unsurprising. The South in 1960 was that bad, the movie states. The stories of these women, what it feels like to be them, is a story told by a young white woman, and it is potent stuff. Medgar Evers is killed in the middle of the book (which happened June 12, 1963), and this is a tipping phenomenon. Women who were too afraid to tell their stories started pouring them out, and because civil rights was in the national news, what these maids had to say was newsworthy. Despite what sounds like it would be a complete downer of a movie, it is really very uplifting, and not just because the maids got mad, and they got even. The actresses who portray the maids do a fantastic job of making lemonade out of lemons, supporting each other, and enjoying life despite all the negatives they are surrounded by.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Red Beans and RIce

One of the many things I like about New Orleans, besides the food, which is obvious, is the cab drivers. The last few trips that I have had excellent stories in the cab. On my most recent trip, when the driver asked me if I did any shopping, I replied that I bought some spice mixes because I just wasn't happy with my recreation of red beans and rice--so he proceeded to offer me up some tips, all of which are contained in this recipe from 'The Homesick Texan' 16 oz. red beans, soaked 1 tablespoon of bacon grease (can substitute canola or olive oil if you prefer) 1 bell pepper, chopped 1 medium yellow onion, chopped 2 celery ribs, diced 6 cloves of garlic, minced 1/4 pound of andouille sausage, cubed 1/2 cup of parsley, minced 2 bay leaves 1 teaspoon of dried thyme or 1 sprig fresh 1 teaspoon dried leaf oregano 1 teaspoon sweet paprika 1 tablespoon Worcestershire Cayenne, salt and black pepper to taste 2 smoked ham hocks 8 cups of chicken broth or water 4 green onions, green part chopped (save the white for another use) 6 cups of cooked rice Method: After cleaning and sorting, soak your beans in water overnight. In a large pot on medium heat, sauté in bacon grease the onion, celery and bell pepper for 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sausage to the pot and cook for two minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot except for the green onions. Turn up the heat to high and bring to a boil. Let it boil for 20 minutes and then turn the heat to low, cover the pot, and let it simmer for 40 minutes. After 40 minutes, take off the lid, stir the pot and continue to let it simmer for two hours. You might check back on it every once in a while to make sure there’s still enough liquid in the pot. At this time, test your beans—they should be soft, but if not, continue to cook on low until they are. When the beans are ready, with a wooden spoon smash a few of them against the side of the pot—this will make your beans extra creamy. Pour the beans over rice, and garnish with the green onions. A few shakes of some Louisiana hot sauce such as Tabasco or Crystal is a good addition as well.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

I have been a big Steve Jobs admirer ever since we got our first Mac, back in 1984--we were in the first APple wave, which was amazing for it's time, and foretold of what would come with the second Apple wave. But I wasn't looking forward to reading the biography--all the press I read and heard about it really focused on what a difficult person Steve Jobs was. I would agree with that assessment. I wish I had had diner with him but I wouldn't want to spend much more time than that--he was not a genius who if you spent more time with him you would have learned how he did it. He was impatient with things that didn't suit him, and he wouldn't hesitate to let you know that. Ok, fine, but not something that makes for social fun. He was a guy who you would never have to guess what his opinion was==he would let you know. His genius was in seeing what technology bent to it's limits would do right now, and then forcing it into a pleasing package. He wouldn't settle for something that didn't work smoothly and elegantly. Close was not enough, it had to be perfect.
Well, you could see how tiresome that could be on a day in day out basis. He lived for a long time in a house that was essentially unfurnished because he would rather live with no furniture rather than furniture that wasn't suited to him--which made him inherently monastic. The only time I thought I might have something in common with him was when it came to wearing a uniform. He traveled to Sony in Japan, and all the workers were wearing the same outfit. It was a nice outfit--Issey Miyake designed them. When Jobs brought the idea back to Apple, his employees absolutely hated it, but it struck a chord with him, so Miyake designed the black turtleneck he always wore for him, and gave him a 100 of them. After that, it is all he wore--black turtleneck with jeans--which is definitely the phase of my life that I am in--black shirt, black pants (my shirt is not Miyake, it is L.L. Bean, but then I am a child of Maine, where as Mr. Jobs was a billionaire--different budgets, different backgrounds). There were several surprises in here for. One was that Jobs was seriously involved with Joan Baez (he is a huge Dylan fan, so this is ironic at best), but given their age differences and the fact he wanted more children, it was not to be. Another was that he had a liver transplant--I did not know that (he was kind of fanatical about privacy around his health and I am not at all good at keeping apace with gossip, so not doubt this was widely known, but it surprised me). Lastly, I had an impression of him as socially awkward based on all the sound bites about him--but that is not the impression that the book conveys--he was charismatic in a single minded kind of way, and very consistent. What he loved he loved, and you could count on that. A complicated man, and a well written and entertaining biography.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Iowa Caucus Thoughts

What are we looking for in an early caucus state? Stephen Bloom characterized Iowa as a white, rural, economically depressed, methamphetamine addicted, Bible thumping state, where people don't leave their isolated communities, are out of touch with the country at large, and are essentially mired in a bygone era that makes their opinions on presidential candidates irrelevant. But it assumes that we know what we want in an early primary state, that we are all agreed on those criteria that make a state ideal. I'm not so sure we are. Iowa is not representative, and it is arguably not ideal, but what characteristics are we looking for? One is probably a state that is neither reliably Republican nor Democrat--you want to see what the independents are going to do. Iowa has a senator from each party, and has the entire 20 years that I have lived here. The Governor switches pretty regularly between parties, and in the 5 Presidential elections we have had since I moved here, we have gone for the Democrat in three, the Republican in 2, and most importantly, we have gone for the winning president in each of them. Another important trait is that there be diversity--ethnic, economic, religious diversity, as well as rural v. urban diversity. Iowa has some disadvantages there--it is more white than the country as a whole, and it is older. Older might be an advantage. Older people are more likely to vote in the election than younger voters. Lastly, an early state has to be open to the candidates. They need to participate actively in the process. Iowa takes this part very seriously. Professor Bloom accused Iowans of being from a bygone era, and it is true in this sense--they take civic responsibility and engagement very seriously. It also needs to be a place where candidates are safe entering people's homes and dialoguing with them. We are a state where it is still possible to leave your front door unlocked and not regret it. You might find that either backwards or refreshing, but it does tend to make people feel unthreatened. I think one thing we don't want to do is to narrow the race too early. 'Winning' in Iowa is often a matter of getting 25% of the vote--if you get 2% you have no traction, but if you can muster 15-20%, you have a shot. Landing in the top three is a good showing, and a surprise winner can get a lot more attention and a shot at the brass ring. Next, let's look at how a caucus functions. It is really different from a primary, where everyone just goes into a booth and marks a ballot and leaves. In a caucus, you all have to show up at the same time--usually at a school, a church, or a public library, and usually it is pretty cramped space. That is a big hurdle right there--you can't just drop by on your way to or from work and get it done. Then you have to be prepared to spend 2-3 hours to complete the process. The Republicans and the Democrats do it differently--for the Republicans, the vote is a secret ballot, but the Democrats have you huddle around the candidate of your choice. Then all the voters are counted, and a total is arrived at, and then the tally for how many supporters for each candidate is done. You need at least 15% of the total voters in order to have your vote count--so after the first alignment, caucus goers have the opportunity to try to get voters for candidates that do not have 15% to come over to their camp. There is dialogue about why voters have chosen a particular candidate. You stand up in front of your neighbors and say who you are voting for and why. There is nothing private about it. So, what does such a process tell us? One thing it told us in 2008 is that a largely white state will stand up in front of their neighbors and vote for a person of color. And that guy went on to win.