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Monday, December 31, 2012

Reflections of the Way Life Used to Be

As I peer through the window of lost time Looking over my yesterday...

The Supremes seem like a nostalgic way to end the year and reflect on 2012.

Personally I had a good year.  There were no big steps backwards.  I didn't have the best of reading years--less than 200 books--but it certainly wasn't the worst either.

Some Favorite Books of the year include:
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
  • Bring Up the Bodies
  • Telegraph Avenue
  • Esther Waters
  • The Fault in Our Stars
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave
  • The Power of Habit
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
  • In One Person
I continue to read more crime fiction than I do serious fiction, and 'The American Spy' and 'Before the Poison' were two favorites--as well as the latest Ian Rankin, Madame Ramotse, and Charles Todd books.

The same could be said for my movie viewing.  I watched less than 300 movies, but that isn't bad--not having a TV really helps.  If you can't stream it on Netflix or get it on a DVD, I couldn't watch it.  That doesn't eliminate all the detritus from the video landscape but it sure helps. 

Some Favorite Movies of the year include:
  • The Descendents
  • The Secret World of Arrietty
  • Salmon Fishing in Yemen
  •  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
  • The Help
  • Chico and Rita
  • Safety Not Guarenteed
  • Young Goethe in Love
  • Moonrise Kingdome
  • Monsieur Lazhar

Some significant steps forward were that my eldest son got married--such a nice event, and very heart warming.  My spouse and I were responsible for the food and we did not let the bride and groom down.  I finally managed to get back to exercising regularly afterwards, which had been a huge hurdle that I hadn't managed to crack the code on, but it has been six good months.

My youngest son took his first college classes--he has yet to graduate from high school, but is dipping his toe in the college waters, and that went well.  And that was not a given, so a big relief as well as a big step forward.

All in all, a very good year indeed.  May 2013 be as good or better, and may some of the political lessons learned in 2012 affect the year to come.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Let's start off on the right foot.  I am not a huge fan of the Batman films.  I did absolutely adore the TV series in the 1960's, but I was 7 then.  They would not hold my adult self's attention, that I know.  But my serious quibble with the modern Batman films is that he is played as turgid rather than restrained.  If that is the role, the Christian Bale is the man for the job.  Nobody does wooden the way he does (he really surprised me in 'The Fighter', and I would love to see more of that Christian Bale, but this guy?  Not so much).  So, since I have the approach to movies that can best be summed up as 'if you can't say something good, don't say much of anything at all', why am I writing this?

In a word, Catwoman.   Anne Hathaway owns the role after uttering a single “Ooops.” It’s an “Ooops” dripping in sexiness and insincerity, coming as it does after Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne interrupts her in the middle of a heist and before she dons her leather or rubber or vinyl or whatever-it-is catsuit. The “Ooops” and its Jean Harlow naughty-girl reading come early in the film and the rest of Hathaway’s performance seems to flow from it. She’s flip, she’s funny, and she looks great astride the bat motorcycle--like she at one with the machine. She kicks credible ass, and she doesn’t overdo the cat business. She’s just right. She’s also the one bit of effervescence in a film that’s otherwise so turgid it would be unendurable—one reviewer used the term 'Wagnerian bloat' and I think that captures it.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt auditioning for the role of a kinder gentler Robin causes some decrease in the over-the-top nature of the story.

The Dark Knight Rises is as exhausting as it is entertaining.  Clocking in at 2 hours and 45 minutes, you need to start the evening early if you are going to get through it in one sitting.  The bad guys are really bad, and the story of turning the prison over to the inmates has the predictable outcome--but the movie does keep a sort of cartoon-like feel throughout.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

This is the story of Salman Rushdie's time in exile secondary to the fatwah against him issues by the Ayatollah Khomeni in Iran.  It is not short and it is not sweet--it is a good book if you are thinking of New Year's resolutions, because this is a bit of a cautionary tale--what not to do.

The book opens not with this, but rather with a story of his early life.  He is setting the stage for why this was so particularly hard for him to tolerate.  He never wanted for confidence, either as a writer or a man, even early on, when neither was particularly warranted.  He admits to his multiple failings.  He was bad boyfriend material, and worse husband material.  His saving grace, besides his writing, is that he is a good father.  The beginning of the book is balanced--we do not approach the publication of 'The Satanic Verses' feeling sorry for him.  I think Rushdie wants the reader to understand what he went through.  He wants support for the British government protecting him all the time that they did.  He wants to put the whole episode behind him, but not to have it forgotten.

The best parts of this book involve self reflection.  The most tedious parts of the book are when he is whining.  The weirdest part of the book is that he floats between the first and the third person.  As if Joseph Anton is and is not Salman Rushdie.  All said, it is a good read, despite it's length. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Power of Pepper Spray

I had a recent encounter with the power of capsaisin.  I was eating my dinner at a Szechuan restaurant that I love in my home town, with all the dishes on a large Lazy Susan in the center of the table (I am not sure why poor Susan got labeled as lazy, but the convenience of a rotating portion of the table for sharing a multitude of dishes does not strike me so much as lazy but efficient--as the dishes whirl past each diner, you can pick and choose what you will graze upon without much fuss).  While I was unsuspectingly plucking a piece of salt and pepper squid off a dish, one of my sons was cutting into a pepper.  One or two droplets of the pepper sprayed across the table, over the top of my glasses and into my right eye.  The pain was instantaneous and profound.  I was completely incapacitated on the spot.  I could not even remain seated after a minute, I was so agitated.  The pain did not subside for several minutes, and was not completely gone for hours.  My poor son kept checking on me throughout the evening, feeling guilty about his inadvertent attack on me.  I can see how a bear could be disarmed and dissuaded from pursuing one who wielded such a defense against it.  What I cannot see is why this technique was employed against Occupy crowds--coast to coast, more than once--and I can see why they sought and were granted compensation for the offense.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Farewell to My Lovely Desk

I have had this desk for almost 20 years.  There is really nothing special about it.  It is a Government Issue piece of furniture.  It is covered in fake wood grain plastic over pressboard.  None-the-less, I am sorry to be saying goodbye to it.  It is familiar and functional.   No reason to give it up based on its characteristics, save one.  I have to sit at it.
I am moving once again, and as I always do when I have to pack up my things, I have been thinking.  I have shed some paper, as I always do.  It is amazing how much I have reduced my reliance on paper over the past 5 years.  I did not even fill a single recycling bin this time—that has never happened.  I no longer have a filing cabinet, and I no longer need the drawers in the desk I am saying good-bye to.  But this move is the first time that I have moved at work since I down-sized my house.  That process was about far more than moving from a big house to a smaller house.  It was a reflective process—what do I want in my life?  What are my priorities now that most of my children have moved out?  So it is a natural consequence that this whole process of reassessment would bleed into my work life.  I had been thinking for quite some time that I would like to try a standing desk.  I spend 6 or more hours a day when I am at work sitting down, and despite an hour of exercise outside of work, that is just not enough time spent on my feet each day.  What with this thing and that, being more active outside of work is just not a sustainable and realistic option right now, so the alternative is to be more active while I am actually at work.  A standing desk would allow for that with a minimum of fuss.  My move is giving me the perfect opportunity to make that change.  So long, farewell , auf weidersehen, goodbye to my old desk.  Welcome in the desk that allows me not to have a ‘desk job’.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young

This is a memoir by Neil Young, and much like the recent Dylan memoir, I think he wrote it.  It is just not all that polished.  It meanders frequently and at times he is just frankly off the beaten path of the story he is trying to tell.  That said, it is not badly written, I do not mean to imply that at all.  He also has a very good story to tell—he was important places at important times.  He was part of one of my favorite bands from the very early 60’s, Buffalo Springfield, and the stories he tells about those early days are very fun to read—even though a lot of people have written about them, I never tire of hearing those stories, and because I was in grammar school, a lot of the cultural references I remember but could not contextualize from personal experience, so I like reading about the ideas of others.  And Neil Young has some very good ideas.  He is an interesting guy—which I think is not always the case with singer-song writers, even though I would like that to be true.  His songs tell stories and he clearly loves to practice and perform with other musicians.  He is not all about being the front man.  That comes through most clearly when he is writing about Crazy Horse and his relationship with that band.  He wants to create music with other people.  He can’t get to the same place by himself, and he likes both the journey and the result.  He is not a perfectionist in the sense that the product he puts out on stage has to be perfect—he wants it to be good, but he also likes to test drive some ideas in front of an audience, see how it plays, and then either add it to the performance or change his idea.  I like that concept.  He contends that he can no longer do that because in the age of YouTube, the imperfections would be under the microscope of not just the audience in front of him, but the audiences yet to come, and that they are not all that forgiving.  But he doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder about that in the book—it is what it is.  Accept it and move on.
There are many things that you would expect—the women, the drugs, the booze, the hours and the traveling.  There are also a few things in here you might not expect—he has a long-time wife, who he is still quite attached to.  He is an involved father who cares for all his kids—two of whom have cerebral palsy.  He likes to build things and work with his hands.  He had polio as a child.  He is loyal.   By the end of the book I felt like it would be interesting to have dinner with him.  He shares value with me.
If you are a Neil Young fan, this is a must read.   If you are not, but want to see the evolution of a rock legend over time, this is a good read—I liked it better than the Keith Richards memoir and not as much as the Patti Smith memoir.  It is funny, interesting, and hopeful.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Barack Obama--Not a Muslim

I feel like on the day that we celebrate the birth of Jesus that it is time to talk a little bit about Christian values.  One of which would be to not lie about other people.  The fact that there is a persistent and completely unsubstantiated contention that Obama is a Muslim is my bone to pick today.  What??  First of all, it shouldn’t matter.  That has no bearing on his ability to govern the country.  Then you could say that there were so many other lies about him during the most recent campaign cycle that what difference does one more make?  I don’t know why this one irks me so much, but it does.  I am not a religious person, so it is not that it offends my sense of piety.  I am definitely live and live on that account.  It just offends me deeply that people for whom religion does matter quite a lot, and who profess to be conservative Christians would tell such offensive lies.  It just seems to me to be a disservice to Jesus.  When they ask “What Would Jesus Do?” I am pretty sure it would not be to malign a man for your personal gain.  I have read the Bible backwards and forwards on more than one occasion that that just is not in there. 
Is this out of step with social conservatives these days?  I would contend no.  Theirs is an interventionalist God.  The prevailing trend is to see everything through their lens.  When things go their way it is because God is on their side.  When they do not it is not because they are wrong.  No.  It is because sinners abound, and God is teaching us all a lesson.   We are not worthy of saving.  This is not the teachings of Jesus  that I learned.   Tolerance, forgiveness, charity—those are some values that stand out in my mind.  Not so for the social conservative.  My way or the highway—to hell, if some recent political ads are to be believed.   I am hoping that the New Year brings more tolerance, but I am not holding my breath.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Art of Using Everything

Food wasted is a terrible thing—about a third of people in the U.S. and up to 50% if children in the U.S. have food instability, which means that they literally do not reliably know where their next meal is coming from.  The second is that if you don’t eat it, it has to go somewhere.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food leftovers are the single-largest component of the waste stream by weight in the United States.  Food waste includes uneaten food and food preparation scraps.   Over 12 percent of the total municipal solid waste generated in American households was food scraps  thrown away and disposed in landfills or combusted in incinerators.

The environmental impact of food disposal is significant. The decomposition of food and other organic waste in landfills produces methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide. Landfills are the largest human-related source of methane in the United States, accounting for 34 percent of all methane emissions.   So start off by composting, because not all food scraps are edible—but for those things that are edible, make an effort to ingest them.
I am using the Brussels sprout in its natural form as an example of this concept, but I am thinking more broadly.  I am the child of Depression Era parents and one of the vanishingly few things that I have carried into my adult life from their habits is a ‘waste not, want not’ approach to food.  The corollary to that is to shop for bargains, which I have also internalized, but today I want to focus on trying to reduce the waste that is apparently quite prevalent today.  When you buy Brussels sprouts at a Farmer’s Market, you can get the whole shebang—stalk, sprouts, and leaves.  The greens on the Brussels sprout are a lot like the outer leaves of a cabbage in texture, and very mildly flavored—chop them and use them as you would any other green.  The stalks are quite stringy on the outside, but a vegetable peeler can remove that, and the core of the stalk is sweet and can be used in a vegetable soup, especially if you are going to puree it.  Then use the sprouts as you usually would, and here is a recipe for that—you can substitute chopped nuts for the meat  and use all olive oil if you  want to go vegan.
Brussels Sprouts
2 pounds brussels sprouts
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces thick sliced smoked ham, coarsely chopped
2 ounces pancetta, coarsely chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/3 cup stock
1/4 cup apple cider
salt, pepper to taste

Trim root ends from brussels sprouts. Slice the sprouts into thin strips from top to root end (as you would a head of lettuce), use food processor fitted with coarse shredding disk.
Melt butter with olive oil in large deep skillet over medium heat. Add ham and pancetta; sauté until golden, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic; stir 30 seconds. Add Brussels sprouts, broth and cider; sauté until crisp-tender but still bright green, 3 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and black pepper. Transfer to bowl and serve hot.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Ceramics of Doug Hanson

I had the great pleasure to meet a retired Cornell College professor and well known potter at his studio in Mount Vernon last week. 

 He makes things that you can use—a utilitarian approach to the art of ceramics.  Better still, they are priced affordably, so you can buy them when you are young and not altogether comfortably situated in life, and have handmade things to serve food with and eat it off of.  The pleasure of hand made things can be a part of your life in  a way that was true for people long ago, but less so today.  My father thought it was such a treat to have store bought bread, because his mother or grandmother made bread every day.  That is a remarkable thing—to be able to enjoy someone’s creativity in the midst of your busy every day life, and conversely, to help them support themselves while they do it.
The thing that I love the most that I bought that day was a very large raku bowl the Doug made in 1972—it is the salad bowl that I needed for serving 25-40 people.  I have a huge one for crowds of over 50 that I bought in Vermont, and I have one for 15-25 people that my friend Ivy bought me.  I have two that I use when we are 5-12 people that I bought in Thailand (made of sustainably grown teak wood rather than ceramic), but I lacked one in between and when I saw it I feel immediately in love with it.  It is a tall elegant shape, and it had a lot of experience making people happy—it had been serving food longer than I had.  I used it for the first time, and it performed exactly how I thought it would, and I am so grateful that he was willing to part with it.

The unexpected thing about Doug is that he is helping to raise awareness of the potters in San Juan de Oriente in Nicaragua.  My eldest son spent a fall in this village, working with Jose Ortiz and other artisans there to organize an exhibition of their work in Finland.  Doug had many pieces of pottery for sale from this wonderfully talented village for sale—he is helping to publicize their talent, on top of selling his own work.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sourdough Waffles

These are the best waffles ever--a modification on the Nancy Silverton recipe (there was way too much butter in hers).  And the very best part is that if you are feeding your sourdough starter and find yourself with cups and cups of it on your hands, this is an excellent way to use it up--see my December 11th post for the recipe.  If your starter is just getting started, you might need to invite people over for breakfast.  Or my personal favorite--breakfast for dinner. And if you cannot finish them, no worries, they freeze beautifully.  They reheat well in the toaster as well.

4 Tbs. (1/4 cup) butter
8 oz (1 cup) milk
Put these together and heat in the microwave until the  butter melts.

Add the milk-butter mixture to:
9 oz (about a cup) white starter
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp (packed) brown sugar
6 oz (about 1 1/2 cups) all purpose flour

Mix these together to form a thick batter, cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for 8-14 hours. If you do this before going to bed, you’ll have the batter ready for breakfast the next day.
Preheat your waffle iron for 10-15 minutes.
Uncover the batter and whisk in 2 large eggs and 1/4 tsp baking soda. Pour 1/2 to 3/4 cups of batter on the hot waffle iron and close the lid. Let cook for 3-5 minutes until golden brown and crisp.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I got this book out of the library because I wanted to know more about the things that drive habit--I am such a creature of habit, and I would so like to change some of mine--and leave others completely alone. What is it all about, and how can you master it for good? 

This is a great book to read, especially if you are struggling to change one of your habits that you are less than enamored with.  It is split into three major sections, and I found the first two sections were most compelling for me.  The first section is on personal habits.  He gives some examples of people who have made dramatic changes in their personal habits, and some of the key factors that go into making those changes successful.  The first is to recognize that all behavior has a cue, something that gets the ball rolling.  The cue triggers a behavior, and that behavior has its own specific reward.  Unfortunately the ‘reward’ is an apt description only of the short term rather than the long term.  One example that he gives is snacking at work.  The cue is something—that you are bored, that you need to get up and walk around because you are restless, that you need company, something—but not that you are hungry.  The ‘reward’ is that the thing that triggered the behavior is appeased.  The itch has been scratched.  The reward is unaffected by the fact that this snacking is in fact not at all good for your waistline.  The trick to braking the habit is to either head the cue off at the pass—by taking a walk without getting a snack, for example, or meeting someone for coffee.  Get the reward you are seeking without resorting to a behavior that is ultimately not good for you.
The second part of the book is about how to change the habits of corporations.  He gives two great examples.  The first is when the new CEO at Alcoa began to focus on worker safety as his top priority.  He never talked about profits, or the presumed negative consequences of prioritizing safety above all else.  The culture in the company was that making money was the top priority, and anything that slowed that down was a bad thing.  The widely held opinion was this guy would fail and fail big.  But on the contrary, he and Alcoa thrived.  It turned out that it was cheaper to do the right thing—not to mention that it saved lives and limbs in the process, and made workers happy and loyal.  These stories are great examples to counter attack when people automatically think that more regulations are anti-business.

This is a book that does not break new ground, but did leave me thinking a lot long after I had finished it.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What To Say About Guns?

I know that the solutions to the problem of the annual loss of life from hand guns in the United States are going to be as complex as the reasons that it has become an epidemic.  I do know that I have cried in my car more this past week than at any time since my youngest son was diagnosed with cancer as a 5 year old.   The news is not typically good, but I am not often repeatedly moved to tears.
So here are a few thoughts.  I am completely unmoved by the argument that gun legislations would not have prevented this most recent tragedy, or that strict gun controls did not prevent a similar mass killing of 80 people in Norway.  Norway has on average 14 gun-related deaths per year.  We have over 10,000 annually.  Clearly gun control can work—there are literally dozens of examples of that.  This is a public health hazard and we need to start approaching it like that rather than like it is a civil right to own and operate a gun.  We restrict driving privileges, we can do this.  It will not be easy, but progress can be made.  The solution is not one that will eliminate gun violence in one fell swoop—the objective is to reduce it, punish violators, and have a more sensible approach to firearms.
I am appalled by the suggestion that the answer would be to arm teachers.  Two things leap to mind, neither of them good.  The first is the shooting incident on the streets of New York this year, where police officers in pursuit of a gunman shot innocent people on the street—many of them—by accident.  These are people who are trained law enforcement officers, and they couldn’t avoid collateral damage.  I can only imagine what would happen with teachers.  The other is that while shootings in schools are rare events—most teachers go their entire careers without being in a school where one occurs—the ability of teachers to keep their weapons secure at all times would not be 100%.  There would be children who would then have unintentional access to firearms, and the damage from that would be at least as costly as what occurs with domestic firearms and children.  The presence of guns in a society leads to gun violence.  The absence of restrictions on firearms and ammunition increases gun violence.  Not to mention that it is hard enough to get good teachers as it is—if firearms are required in the classroom that will alter who wants to be a teacher for all the wrong reasons.
I have no answers, and I understand that the hurdles are significant, but that should not be the end of the discussion.  The time to talk about it is in the aftermath of a national tragedy—when else?  We devote millions of dollars and countless resources to the war on terrorism.  Terrorists are responsible for far fewer American deaths than gun violence, even including the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  What is wrong with a country that has far more loss of life to its citizens by domestic gun violence than a foreign war? It is time to admit we have a problem, and start to deal with it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My Sister's Sister (2011)

This is the third dialogue rich movie I have watched this month.  I could really get used to that.  The story opens at a party to celebrate the life of Tom, who died under circumstances unknown.  It seems festive, and the first eulogy is about how amazing the dead guy is—then comes his brother, Jack (Mark Duprass).  He chooses to focus on their childhood relationship.  He comes across as childish and bitter—which does on some level fit where he is at.
Enter Iris (Emily Blunt)—she briefly dated Tom at one point, but has a great and long standing friendship with Jack.  After he kills the party, she prescribes some time in isolation for him to either get his head on straighter, or to realize that he has to fake better mental health before he re-enters civilization.   She sends him to a family cabin on an island in Puget Sound, which is appropriately isolated and gorgeous.  But there is one glitch—Iris’ half sister Hannah (Rosemary DeWitt) is already there.  She has just broken up with her girlfriend of seven years, and is well into a bottle of tequila when she gets to know Jack.  One thing leads to another, and they end up in bed together for a brief and sloppy sexual encounter.  As is so often the case when sex is involved, that one night stand becomes supremely complicated as all the implications of that night start to reveal themselves.  It is a wonderful relationship based movie that will undoubtedly be seen as a chick flick, but contains lots of good relationship advice for men as well.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Ode to Sourdough

My spouse and I have been off the bread baking wagon for quite some time.  We had been making various iterations of the bread Jim Lahey, of the Sullivan Street Bakery, developed and Mark Bittman brought to the rest of the world.  It is a very easy bread that has lots of loft, a very good chewy crust, and great texture.  The book ‘Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day’ furthered the technique to allow for making a batter over the weekend, and then leaving it in your refrigerator in a covered container, allowing you to cut off a piece of the dough and make a bread of any size you choose at any time the following week.  Voila!
A year and a half ago we discovered a bread bonanza in the form of a local woman running what she calls an artisanal micro-bakery out of her home.  She built a wood fired outdoor brick oven and she makes a handful of delicious breads off and on.  At that point we stopped making bread all together, despite having baked bread for over 30 years. 
The bread that my husband made before all this ease of bread making took hold was a sourdough bread that was moist and had a hint of sourness in the background.  It was not the kind of sour that you get in a San Francisco sourdough, but it was close.  That starter was not longer resuscitatable, I am sad to report, but it had retained a good amount of sourness.  He borrowed some active but not altogether sour started from a generous friend and got back in the business of baking bread this past week.  Delicious outcome, and a good reminder that sometimes we forget our roots, and they had some very appealing aspects we shouldn’t let go of.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Things to Regulate

This really sums up the difference between the Republican agenda and that of the Democrats.  They are both all about getting into people's lives.  The GOP is not about small government--that is not the choice that they offer.  All post WW II Republican presidents have expanded government, some of them massively (think Reagan).  There has not been a small government Republican president since Eisenhower.

The choice is that the GOP wants their big government to regulate small things--namely you.  Especially if you are female, an immigrant or have immigrant roots that are not strictly European, or gay.  Who you marry, the choices you make in health care, and especially the options you are offered sexually--those are things the GOP thinks should be regulated.  They do not see regulation of the big things as their provenance.  Things like air, water, and soil.  Those kinds of regulations just slow down the business of rich people making lots of money.

Progressives on the other hand favor keeping out of what choices people make in their personal lives and stick to the choices we have for things like clean energy, affordable health care, and promoting innovation in these areas is their pro-business model.  We know historically that companies can be successful and regulated--those ideals prevent things like the river in Cleveland catching on fire.  We have the opportunity to be a leader in new technologies, but only if we have representatives in government who are looking after the interests of the country as a whole and not just the .01% who pay for the ads that get them elected.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics by Jonathan Haidt

The subtitle of the book is a hint that this is about something that I believe it is not about--it is not about how religion or politics divide us. It is about how conservatives and liberals have different values--which makes sense, right! But how so?

Jonathan Haidt  studies  morality and emotion, and how they vary across cultures. He is also active in positive psychology (the scientific study of human flourishing) and study positive emotions such as  admiration and awe. His research focuses on the moral foundations of politics, and on ways to transcend the politics within politics using principles of moral psychology to think of ways to foster more civility and compromise within politics. Morality, by its very nature, makes it hard to study morality. It binds people together into teams that seek victory, not truth. It closes hearts and minds to opponents even as it makes cooperation and decency possible within groups.

The book describes the 5 moral underpinnings of moral judgments, and finds that progressives and conservatives vary in significant ways in how they value each of the factors. The theory, in brief, is that there are 5 "innate psychological systems form the foundation of intuitive ethics" across all cultures, and that one's political affiliation (conservative vs. liberal) is largely determined by an individual's ranking of the relative importance of each of those systems.
These systems are:
  1. Harm/Care
  2. Fairness/Reciprocity
  3. Ingroup/Loyalty
  4. Authority/Respect
  5. Purity/Sanctity
Haidt's observation has been that those who self-identify as liberal tend to value the first two (care, fairness) higher than the other three, while self-identified conservatives place a higher value on the last three. Both liberals and conservatives assign "care" the highest value, but conservatives tend to value "fairness" the lowest while liberals tend to value "purity" the lowest.   Finally, there is a pretty big difference between how conservatives and liberals operationalize the ‘fairness’ pillar when it comes to politics.
So all of this is very interesting, but the thing that Haidt says about how to fix it is really similar to how you fix rams that are head butting each other—you put them in close quarters with each other and that makes them have to get along.  He argues that when Newt Gingrich became the House Speaker, he changed the way they conducted business in a serious way.  He essentially shortened the voting week to three days, which discouraged House members from moving to Washington DC with their families—so they no longer socialize as couples or families with each other.  They essentially have no contact with each other—they even travel to and from their offices to Congress on different trains—there is a Democratic train and a Republican one.  So they have no opportunity to interact with each other, much less negotiate much needed compromise.  It is no longer a two party system.  It is one party or the other.  And until that is fixed, or we have only one party in power, Haidt hypothesizes that the whole system will remain broken.  This is a very thought-provoking book that I kept in my mind for days after I finished it.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Safety Not Guarenteed (2012)

I agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment that no review of this movie is going  to do it justice.  It is an engaging, ambitious, and thoroughly unique movie that will keep you smiling for days to come.  The story is simple.  A hip Seattle magazine is looking for a story to do, and one of the writers, Jeff,  pitches the idea that they find the writer of an intriguing advertisement that goes something like this:
”WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me.  This is not a joke.  You will get paid after we get back.  Must bring your own weapons.  I have only done this once before.  SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.”
So it sounds like the lead in for a Judd Apatow comedy, but it is nothing of the sort. This is charming, not silly.  It is intense.  The story gets some traction, and Jeff demands that he gets two interns to go with him—Darius (Aubrey Plaza, from ‘Parks and Recreation’) is an intense and quirky loner and Arnau is a very nerdy  and shy guy with a laptop on his lap at all times.  The group finds Kenneth (Mark Duplass, who carries the show), who placed the ad, and he and Darius begin to plan their time travel.  He is serious, and at first blush he does not seem like a total whack job.  The movie has smart dialogue and nuanced acting, a rare but compelling combination.  The reasons that Darius and Kenneth want to go back in time draw them closer together, and before long it is them against the world.  Very fun movie which leaves open the question of whether or not you can time travel.  Duplass and Plaza are flat out amazing in this--keep an eye on both of them.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Wild Rice and Mushroom Soup

The hospital where I have worked for the past 20 years has very few things on the menu that withstand the test of that kind of time.  Their wild rice and chicken soup is the only thing that I don't make that I would like to eat.

The current Cook's Illustrated has just such a recipe--add chicken or turkey to it if you like, and make it withe vegetable stock if you want it to be vegetarian.  The method for cooking wild rice is one I hadn't used before.


  • 1/4 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms, rinsed
  • 4 1/4 cups water
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled, plus 6 cloves, minced
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 cup wild rice
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 pound cremini mushrooms, trimmed and sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 1 onion, chopped fine
  • 1 teaspoon tomato paste
  • 2/3 cup dry sherry
  • 4 cups stock
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 Tbs. cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup half and half or whole milk
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh chives
  • 1/4 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest


  1. 1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Grind shiitake mushrooms in spice grinder until finely ground (you should have about 3 tablespoons).
  2. 2. Bring 4 cups water, thyme, bay leaf, garlic clove, ¾ teaspoon salt, and baking soda to boil in medium saucepan over high heat. Add rice and return to boil. Cover saucepan, transfer to oven, and bake until rice is tender, 35 to 50 minutes. Strain rice through fine-mesh strainer set in 4-cup liquid measuring cup; discard thyme, bay leaf, and garlic. Add enough water to reserved cooking liquid to measure 3 cups.
  3. 3. Melt butter in Dutch oven over high heat. Add cremini mushrooms, onion, minced garlic, tomato paste, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are browned and dark fond develops on bottom of pot, 15 minutes. Add sherry, and cook until reduced, about 2 minutes. Add ground shiitake mushrooms, reserved rice cooking liquid, broth, and soy sauce and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until onion and mushrooms are tender, about 20 minutes.
  4. 4. Whisk cornstarch and remaining ¼ cup water in small bowl. Stir cornstarch slurry into soup, return to simmer, and cook until thickened, about 2 minutes. Remove pot from heat and stir in cooked rice, cream, chives, and lemon zest. Cover and let stand for 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

I was going to start off by saying that the thing about Michael Chabon is that each and every book is entirely different from the books that have come before, and that is certainly true here.  But in truth, he is a facile and beautiful writer, sitting very near, if not next to David Foster Wallace for me--which is rarefied air indeed (again, in my book).  His prose is complicated and interesting.  Sometimes too complicated, but that is so much better than the alternative.

The themes that are the hallmark of a Chabon story are present here.  Masculine relationships--men as fathers, sons, husbands, and friends--they are all explored within the basic framework of the story.  Nate and Archy are the main men--they own and operate a failing record store called Brokeland Records somewhere on the Berkeley-Oakland border.  The name calls up images from the Grateful Dead son 'Brokedown Palace':

Going to leave this brokedown palace,
On my hand and knees, I will roll, roll, roll.
Make myself a bed in the waterside,
In my time, I will roll, roll roll.

In a bed, in a bed, by the waterside I will lay my head.
Listen to the river sing sweet songs, to rock my soul.

These men are struggling.  The urge to remain boys is very seductive.  They abandon their sons, they cheat on their wives, they drink too much, and they fail to get jobs that live up to their potential.  Meanwhile, their women are fighting real battles in a messy world, and could really use some help.  It is the usually well told story that will keep you thinking for some time to come after closing the book.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Campaign (2012)

I was very surprised by just how enjoyable this movie was.  I was also glad that I watched it after the acrimonious recent election season.  Roger Ebert wrote that it was  'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' if that movie had been written by The Onion.  The whole seedy corporate interests wanting to have the Senator in their pocket so they can perpetrate immeasurable wrongs without fear of being called out kind of election movie.

The story is that Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is a good ole boy seeking re-election to his long held Senate post in North Carolina.  He is just not as amenable to corruption as a billionaire industrialist might like--although he is smarmy politician through and through.  So the billionaires put up a puppet candidate, Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakas), who backfires on them.  Almost every terrible thing that you have heard about dirty politics is evidenced in this movie, but it is all very funny--a great trick, because in real life it is not funny at all.  But the power of comedy is that you accept unpleasant truths packaged in an easier to accept format, but once the movie is over and the lights come up, you are more willing to see the truth underneath all the joking.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sourdough Starter a la Nancy Silverton

The sourdough starter in my house comes from Nancy Silverton’s fantastic book ‘Breads from the La Brea Bakery’.  This is a very much shortened version of the recipe, which takes up a good ¼ of the book in her version.  Lots of the space is taken up describing how the starter should look and smell at each stage of the process, but there are some very humorous parts.  My favorite is where she acknowledges that it is hard to feed the starter three times a day if you work—so you think she is going to cut you some slack—but no, she is going to tell you to take it to work with you!
Here is the Cliff notes recipe for her sourdough starter:


  1. Wrap the grapes in well washed cheesecloth, tying the corners to form a bag; lightly crush them with a rolling pin (to release the sugar to mix with the natural yeast on the skins; just like making wine!) and immerse them in the flour water mix. Cover tightly with a lid or plastic wrap secured with a rubber band. Leave at room temperature for 6 days, stirring once or twice a day for six days.
  2. The bag of grapes will eventually appear inflated, and liquid will begin to separate from the flour base. The mixture will begin to taste and smell slightly fruity, and the color will be strange. That is as it should be. By the sixth day the bag of grapes will have deflated, the color will be yellow, and the taste pleasantly sour; the fermentation is complete. The starter is living but weak, and it needs to be fed—which entails feeding it several times a day (see below).
  3. Remove the grapes and squeeze their juices back into the starter. Stir it up thoroughly and transfer it to a clean container. (Although you can use it after just one feeding, the starter will be stronger and healthier with the full treatment) You can refrigerate it until you're ready to proceed.
  4. Three days before you plan to use it, stir 1 cup flour and 1 cup water into the container, blending well. Let stand uncovered at room temperature until it bubbles up — 3 to 4 hours — then cover and refrigerate. Repeat this the second and third day.  Three times a day is best at the beginning.
  5. Store the starter tightly covered in the refrigerator where it will keep perfectly for 4 to 6 months, after which it’s a good idea to pour off all but 2 cups and give it another feeding. Before using the stored starter for bread, however, give it the full 3-day feeding schedule once again to restore it and to tone down excess sourness.