Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Underground: the power chords of freedom

We have a small house, and under the pressure of a recent, holiday-related increase in the amount of children's stuff, I have agreed to move my boxes filled with hundreds of cassette tapes out of the living room, where the stereo is. Because I have retained a small space, adequate for a small box of 30 tapes, in the living room, and also because I am a bit of a compulsive sorter, I spent much of yesterday evening going through all of those tapes, sorting the mix tapes from the full albums, the albums which we now own on CD from those we don't, and so forth.

In this era when the record companies are buying legislation to allow them to snoop into private computers to see if anyone's been "sharing" audio files, my collection of cassette tapes seems like an archive of samizdat mimeographed leaflets — not a completely inappropriate analogy, as much of my politicization was triggered by rock and roll. In 1985, the music available to a 12-year-old on the radio in the Midwest was pop-rock ear candy, the final absorbtion of new wave into the mainstream. Although I later discovered the more overtly political music of rap, punk, and world music, it was casette tapes dubbed from old scratchy vinyl records of 60s psychedelic music that first put the idea in my head that there was something beyond Reagan-era Middle America, that there had been eras of massive change and radicalism in the past and would be again, that another world was possible.

One of the tapes I came across last night and put on was a copy of the 1969 Jefferson Airplane album Volunteers. It is far from their best work (their psychedelic masterpiece After Bathing At Baxter's was one of the first CDs I purchased when I finally got a CD player in the mid-90s), and I hadn't listened to it in years. I vaguely remembered the title track, that it also contained their version of "Wooden Ships," and that the opening song "We Can Be Together" contained the infamous line "Up against the wall, mother****er," but I was unprepared for how much the opening chords of "We Can Be Together" reminded me of the storm-the-barricades strum-and-drang of the Clash.

This shouldn't be surprising, as this song was the closest thing to an anthem for the current of 60s radicalism that found expression in the Weather Underground. "We are forces of chaos and anarchy / everything you say we are, we are / and we are very proud of ourselves." One the one hand, this seems like a perfect, snotty musical tone for the mostly well-to-do young people who came to believe that domestic terrorism was the most effective way to strike against empire. On the other hand, as a recent article about the Clash in the New Yorker pointed out, one of Joe Strummer's central lyrical themes was that there are some points that can only be made by smashing things. In fact, "White Riot" explicitly makes the point that white working-class kids will always be under the thumb of the rich until they take some direct action — "Black people gotta lot a problems / But they don't mind throwing a brick / White people go to school / Where they teach you how to be thick."

Most people find the turn towards violence of a small group of upper-middle-class Americans in the late 60s more appalling than urban riots, either because they're vaguely on the left and more sympathetic to the difficulties faced by people of color and the working class, or because they're vaguely on the right and somewhere in their hearts think that people of color and the working class are somehow less civilized than middle class whites. While I certainly think the Weather Undergound approach (and to some degree that of the Black Bloc and other contemporary window-smashers) was misguided and counterproductive, I have to admit to a certain understanding of the emotional impulse behind it.

These radicals came of age in an America which had amputated the left side of its body politic. The repression of communists, socialists and other radicals in the 1950s wasn't just a witch-hunt for subversive individuals, it was an attempt to wipe out a certain way of thinking. Unfortunately, capitalism continued to produce economic deprivation, racism, war and alienation — with limited access to a coherent intellectual tradition to help explain the situation and older, seasoned activists to help provide a guide to action, it is hardly surprising that some currents of the radicalism that blossomed in the 60s should flow into deadly dead-ends.

And it is hardly surprising that they should take their political direction from rock and roll. George Lipsitz's excellent book, Rainbow at Midnight, examines the waves of wildcat and general strikes, and other working-class direct action, in the late 1940s. This was far more threatening to the status quo than supposed communists in Hollywood, and Lipsitz convincingly argues that much of the repression associated with "McCarthyism" was in fact directed at working class activists. He further argues that the utopian aspirations which underpinned this radicalism, the sense that acting together can change your workplace, your neighborhood, your world for the better, once it could no longer be safely expressed politically, went "underground" into popular culture. The birth of rock and roll.

Saturday, October 16, 2004


Last night, looking around for a vegetable side dish for dinner, I came across two seemingly incongruent things: some thin, tender asparagus in the refrigerator, and a heavy, golden butternut squash sitting on the sideboard.

It is fall, of course, so it is hardly surprising that we have a few winter squash sitting on the sideboard. But on Tuesday, when S and I were at the grocery store preparing for H's coming-home dinner, he pointed out a big sale display of asparagus, for less than two dollars a pound. And it was not only cheap, it was also the pencil-thin, perfect asparagus that is usually the first really fresh vegetable in spring. And right next to the asparagus display, artichokes! For 99 cents each!

Then I remembered that this particular grocery store had really good-quality plums, nectarines and other summer fruit over the holidays last year, imported from Chile, and concluded that the asparagus must come from south of the equator, where it is of course spring now. And I remembered reading an article some time ago about how farmers in Peru are growing asparagus as an export crop — if I remember correctly, being encouraged to do so as an alternative to, um, cocaine production — and in the process undercutting the asparagus industry in Washington State.

Growing cash crops for export is always a bit of a dicey business for developing nations — brings in cash, but takes land out of local food production. Peasants starving for lack of food as they work on the coffee plantations, and so forth. Hell, not just developing nations — there was an article in our local newspaper a couple of months ago about how the farm workers who pick our fruits and vegetables here in the U.S. can't afford fresh fruits and vegetables for their own families, and thus suffer from all kinds of health problems. At least asparagus is edible; if the asparagus-export market ever collapses, Peruvian farmers won't be starving as the coffee beans rot on the bushes.

H, whose food-service career was far more dashing than mine, once worked in a German restaurant owned by a woman named IG. IG would not eat asparagus. She was a descendent of the German nobility, from a junker family in the eastern part of the country. At the end of WWII, when IG was a child, her family fled as common refugees from the advancing Soviet army, which was not known to be kind to nobles and Nazi sympathizers. For some period they had nothing to eat but asparagus.

But all the weight of globalization and history aside, it is sometimes nice to be able to have a dinner accompanied by both perfect, light steamed asparagus and thick, rich, hearty roasted squash.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

As seen on tv

The mole sauce I made for H's welcome-home dinner last night was excellent. I have never made mole sauce before; all of the recipes I have seen have been so complicated as to be intimidating. But finding a good mole sauce at a restaurant in Vermont is sort of like, um, searching for great French cooking in rural Mississippi, so if we're going to ever have decent mole, I figured it would need to come from my kitchen.

What gave me the confidence to tackle this classic Mexican recipe was an invention that I otherwise loathe — the television. In my book, tv is good for only two things: PBS Kids (a godsend for harried parents, known in our house as "the electronic babysitter"), and PBS cooking shows. Every Saturday if I can, I make the kids play upstairs or outside, make some tea or pour a glass of wine, and plunk down to watch, at the very least, Rick Bayless's Mexico, One Plate at a Time, and sometimes others.

Bayless's show, which featured mole this past week, is my favorite because of its healthy blend of travelogue, sociology and cultural history &mdash it's not just the Great Chef In His Kitchen. Every episode includes a healthy does of Rick in his kitchen, demonstrating a few recipes, but it also usually features a trip to his extensive rooftop garden, and of course scenes shot on location in Mexico, more often than not including mouth-watering panoramas of beautiful produce stacked up in the markets. New Scandanavian Cooking is another favorite, its Norwegian chef a bit like a younger David Attenborough, always sounding slightly out of breath as he rows down fjords to collect mussels or climbs up onto glaciers to make ice cream in a hand-cranked machine.

Ironically enough, my fondness for cooking shows was triggered by the stomach flu. Years ago, when E was still quite small and S not yet conceived, I was laid low by that malicious disease that makes cooking and eating impossible, and renders the last taste in your mouth prior to its onset (in this case, green tea) a trigger of nausea for weeks or months to come. At that time, we still paid for "broadcast cable," which provided us with Canadian broadcast stations from Montreal as well as the ones we could actually receive on our antenna. Weakened and laying on the sofa all day, I eventually got bored enough to flip on the tv, which was tuned to CBC, and discovered The Urban Peasant, a CBC cooking show hosted by an affable middle-aged man named James Barber. Unlike the shows I now most like to watch, this one didn't feature any trips anywhere, but part of the appeal of the show was that all the recipes were simple and quick enough to be made during the actual duration of the show — there was no "and now let's look at a sauce that I have been simmering and reducing for two hours," and he actually chopped the onions, peeled the garlic, measured the flour on the show in front of your eyes. It's from this show that I learned how to cook green beans in a skillet.

I didn't need the simplicity of his recipes to convince me to start cooking, I was already doing that and enjoying it, but what that show communicated in a way that cookbooks have a very hard time doing was the sheer joy of being master of the kitchen, of proceeding with confidence, that options and substitutions are things that you can make on your own initiative, not just when the recipe gives you a multiple-choice. And that's how I came to make the mole.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Soup, beautiful soup

One of my strokes of culinary/literary/parenting genius has been "birthday soup." It comes from Maurice Sendak's "Little Bear" stories. In the story so named, it is Little Bear's birthday, but there is no evidence that anyone has made a cake for him. Finding "carrots, potatoes, peas and tomatoes" in the pantry, he decides that he can make "birthday soup" from these ingredients, and invites his friends over for some.

The kids like this story well enough that one night when H was working late, and I was casting around for something easy, kid-pleasing and nutritious to make for dinner, inspiration struck and I asked if they would like to help me make some Birthday Soup — though without the tomatoes (my family does not like tomatoes). I cut up the veggies, they put them into the pot and poured water over them, added some salt and pepper, and then I simmered it for 20-30 minutes or so. With the extra touch of a little olive oil drizzled over each bowl, a classic family recipe was born. The kids are so taken with it that they eat it happily without realizing that they are eating a dish made entirely from vegetables!

The making of Birthday Soup has turned into a little ritual around our house, one we re-enacted this past Saturday night. I ask the kids if they want to make it, or often enough they will ask me "Can we make Birthday Soup tonight?" We pretty much always have potatoes, carrots and frozen peas on hand, so it doesn't have to be planned for. I ask the kids what we need to make Birthday Soup, and they recite the four ingredients, then add "BUT NO TOMATOES!" in unison.

While H has been out of town, though, I've been on an off-kilter eating schedule, generally eating breakfast in the mid-morning, lunch in the mid-afternoon, and a late dinner after putting the kids to bed, allowing me to make nice adult meals for myself and things the kids will eat without argument for them. Inspired by the kids' choice of soup, I decided to make some minestrone on Saturday night.

It's been years since I've followed a recipe to make minestrone, relying instead on the genetic knowledge I've inherited from my ancestors. Since I have no Italian ancestry, this can sometimes be a dicey proposition. Nonetheless, many food historians maintain that the tradition of long-simmered stews ("peas porridge in the pot, nine days old") is strongest in Northern Europe, where wood for fires was plentiful and in the winter days were short and nights were cold. The sauté, on the other hand, is the more Mediterranean approach, conserving scarce fuel and minimizing heat in the kitchen with a quick application of high heat.

So with the onset of cool fall weather I spent Saturday night assembling a fine kettle of soup. I had no summery greens on hand, but plenty of sturdy cabbage for bulk, sweet carrots and onions, aromatic rosemary, and the nuclear-orange tomatoes we've been growing this year for flavor, and chicken stock and white wine for richness. The nutritional powerhouses of chickpeas (the term is, interestingly, an English corruption of the Italian "ceci") and red kidney beans anchored the soup, and since H is gone, I felt free to sprinkle in a fair number of red pepper flakes for heat.

I inadvertently made the minestrone Atkins-friendly, because I forgot to add the pasta. I am not a carb-avoidant person, and my idea of a healthy diet is probably best summed up by Rick Bayless: make food from the simple ingredients around the edges of the supermarket, don't eat the processed crap in the aisles, indulge in rich meals on a regular basis but balance them with simple, wholesome meals most of the time.

Fortunately, the soup turned out all right, and of course pasta left in leftover soup (and cooking for one, I had quite a few leftovers) will just soak up liquid and get soft, so it all worked out quite well. And eating a good bowl of soup, it is hard not to look back on your life up to that point which has culminated (for right now) in this fine bowl of warmth and goodness, and think, "this has all worked out quite well."

Friday, October 08, 2004

Pastures of plenty

I ate a whole eggplant the other night. It was a smallish one, cut lengthwise into four slices and broiled. I ate them on top of bruschetta, toasting some good artisan bread under the broiler, rubbing the bread with garlic, drizzling with oil, and then smashing half a tomato onto them to coat them with the pulp.

We have yet to suffer a killing frost, but it is unusual to have a growing season last this long around here, so everyone is nervously harvesting their capsicums and other nightshades, and trying to pawn the excess off onto neighbors, friends and co-workers. This is how I got the eggplant, along with a couple of jalapeños.

H has been out of town on a work assignment since Sunday, and while this facilitated consumption of the jalapeños (I am the only one in the house who likes spicy food), it has cut down on the family's ability to consume vegetables before they go bad. Prior to settling down with the eggplant bruschetta for dinner the other night, I had to go through the refrigerator on a search-and-destroy mission for rotting vegetables, and I found more than I would have liked.

I am a bit obsessive about not wasting food. My grandmother developed a certain neurosis about food during the Great Depression (she never abandoned the habit of stuffing sugar packets into her purse whenever she ate in a restaurant), and passed them along to my father, even though she raised him in a middle-class suburban home. My mother is from thrifty Yankee New England stock. And of everything I read in high school English classes, one of the images that made the greatest impression on me was the scene from Grapes of Wrath when piles of oranges are burned while people starve.

However, I grew up in a midsized Midwestern city, surrounded by agriculture but not around it, and the fields were full of industrial monocultures — corn, wheat, soybeans. The part of town I lived in was prosperous enough that gardening was more a hobby than a food source, and ran more to flowers than anything else. Living in Vermont now, surrounded by small-scale vegetable farms, some even inside the city limits, and folks who grow serious gardens because buying fresh vegetables at the supermarket strains their budgets, I have a new appreciation for the actual rhythms of the growing season, the natural cycles of scarcity and abundance, and harvest rituals like using pumpkins for holiday décor make a lot more sense.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Sustainability classes

Last night the kids and I attended an informational meeting at E's school about sustainability. A local environmental non-profit will be spending two years at E's elementary school helping to "integrate the concept of sustainability into the curriculum." Last night was the first public activity of the year, a presentation by the fifth grade classes about the work they have been doing building a database (I suppose because it needs to fit provide math "components" for the curriculum) about "Quality of Life" issues. Essentially, this means asking a group of people to brainstorm about positive things they want to see in their neighborhood, then doing the exercise where everyone gets three dots and gets to stick them next to different options, and then identifying which suggestions got the most dots. The fifth graders had already done this exercise in their own class, and then with the fourth graders, and last night they did it with the semi-random collection of adults who came to the presentation.

The first noticeable thing when I walked into the room was that everyone there, and all of the kids doing the presentation, were white. Our neighborhood, and especially the school, is definitely not all-white; white kids are probably a minority in E's kindergarten class. But of course, this is hardly surprising — I would have been more surprised (though certainly pleased) if the environmental non-profit in question had prioritized reaching out to kids and parents of color and especially the immigrant population and made a specific effort to include them.

I suppose they probably feel they made enough of a "diversity" effort by coming to our neighborhood school at all. The last two years they were doing this program at a much more suburban school in the same city. And I don't think their program of just asking everyone what positive improvements need to be made and then ranking them has translated very well.

The problem of course is that the problems faced by working-class people in our neighborhood are not only more serious and complicated than those faced by many middle-class folks, they are also bound up inextricably in the very functioning of capitalism. For example, a theme in many of the improvements suggested by the adults and actually prioritized by some of the kids was the need for our neighborhood to have stores which sell basic necessities at a reasonable cost and provide a decent living for those who work in them, instead of the rent-a-centers and used furniture stores and the occasional coffee shop for gentrifiers and such like that populate our business areas. Years ago we had a grocery store, a hardware store, a clothing store, but they were all driven out of business by the suburban "big box" stores. Those who can afford to maintain a car will drive out to Wal-Mart and Price Chopper because it's cheaper, those who are too poor pay inflated prices for food at the corner stores and have few options for other staples beyond begging rides or lugging stuff home by way of the bus system. Now that the last holdouts in the neighborhood have closed, no investor in their right mind would put new capital at risk opening any kind of staple-selling business here, let alone one that would offer low prices.

The first few suggestions were the predictable "more bike lanes" and "more trees" made by some of the Americorps*VISTAs and middle-class parents in the audience, but we pretty quickly got down to the key issue for most people: drugs. The first suggestion, of course, was "no drugs," and the facilitators admirably tried to guide people into making positive suggestions which might help with the problem. So we moved from "no drugs" to "more cops" and the mantra of "educating the children about how bad drugs are." Growing up in the 80s, I was educated to the hilt about how bad drugs are and how I should "just say no," so given my own experiences, I have little faith that that approach has any effect in preventing drug use. And I don't think that more cops is going to work either, until we reach a 1:1 cop to kid ratio and each kid can be followed around constantly by their own personal cop.

What we really need is better jobs with higher wages and fewer hours, so parents can spend more time with their kids, more responsible adults can be out and around the neighborhood keeping an eye on things, and kids can look around them and see adults with productive lives instead of slaving away at too many crappy, demeaning jobs or, even worse, not even have a crappy demeaning job.

But of course we are not allowed to make these kinds of demands in this society. Everything tells us that your job (or lack thereof) is your own responsibility, the failings are your own failings. One participant in the meeting touched on the concept when she was bringing up affordable housing (still seen as a public good, at least in our neighborhood) as a need. She mentioned that if people had affordable housing they might not have to work multiple jobs and then might have more time to be around their kids. But no one brought up that if the wages were better at their first job, people wouldn't have to work the second job.

After thinking about it a bit, I decided that what I should have said I wanted to see in the neighborhood was a sense of hope in collective, social solutions to our problems, and an understanding that hopes for individual solutions are too often just recipes for heartbreak.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Shooting gulls

There is a park a few blocks from my house which is on a bluff overlooking the lake. It's got a bandshell, a big open green space where Vietnamese immigrants play pick-up games of soccer and volleyball, a corner full of play equipment, and lots of paved paths around the perimeter of the park, which make it an ideal place to take small children bike-riding. It also has, parked on the edge of the park from April through October every year, a yellow bus full of grills and deep-fat fryers, selling burgers, hot dogs, fries and creemees. Between the food left on the ground and the many fries that are consciously offered to them, the park is also a favorite haunt for gulls, who can sometimes be quite aggressive.

Yesterday I took the kids to the park just before dinner. After riding around the park a bit, we stopped so they could get some time in on the jungle gyms and slides. A young woman was sitting at one of the picnic tables with her mother and her infant, eating the greasy junk food from the bus. Her mom got up to go get some more food from the bus. A few minutes later, I heard the young woman yelling "MOM! COME BACK HERE!" A gull had hopped up onto the picnic table and was actually taking fries directly out of the cardboard box they were sitting in, just a foot or so from the young woman's face. Then she yells at her mom, as if it would help the situation, "I don't understand why it's illegal to shoot the f***ing things!"

It was a true American moment. The mental image I had of these poor folks carrying guns around the park, trying to shoot the gulls — of which there are a huge number, and they're small, and there are all kinds of small human children running around which I presume no one would want to harm — kept me amused for a good long while. Really, if one wanted to solve the gull problem, it would be much more effective to bring guns and shoot (or at least threaten to shoot) the dumbasses who feed the gulls in the first place, thus turning them into the fearless guerilla raiders they are. Or better yet, form armed bands to drive the bus-o-cholesterol from the neighborhood. I'm sure the university professors and rich folks up in the hill section would love to have the faint smell of deep-fat-frying wafting through their neighborhood every day. It might even be exotic for them, as few of them have probably ever had to slave away in the fast-food industry themselves.

After I finished amusing myself with these thoughts, I saw that E had been recruited into a game of tag with two Vietnamese girls, who were both about her size but a couple of years older (one of them used to live down the street from us and hung out at our house when E was smaller). Between the fact that the other girls were a little older and far more agile on the jungle-gym and the fact that E was probably tired out from getting up early and playing a soccer game in the afternoon, she spent a lot of time being "it."

For quite awhile, this did not seem to bother her. She recruited her younger brother to be her "helper," and seemed to get great pleasure out of huddling with him to devise complicated strategies for catching the other girls. She also was clearly enjoying ordering him about. They played for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, running around the playground, whispering strategy, and yelling instructions, but none of it resulting in any progress. E remained "it," and the other girls became increasingly bold in taunting her.

And eventually, E and S just got frustrated and we went home.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Last kiss of the flower goddess

It is properly fall now, cool enough to turn the oven on and enjoy not just the smells but the warmth emanating from it as well. Now the weekly home baked loaves of bread, which are enough a regular part of our cuisine to warrant summertime baking, will be joined by roasts, casseroles, oven-braises, dishes that take a long, slow approach to reach intense flavors.

Last night I made chicken enchiladas — a family favorite, with a sauce made from pureed roasted tomatoes from the garden. With the kids running underfoot as I assembled them, my usual rational approach to cooking (cut everything up, then turn the heat on and start cooking) went out the window. I had warmed corn tortillas anxiously awaiting filling before I had cut up the roasted poblano chilis, so they ended up being chopped one by one as I assembled the enchiladas. As it turns out, one of the chilis was much hotter than the others, and instead of being distributed evenly throughout the adult enchiladas, the heat was concentrated in just one or two of them. By luck of the draw, H, whose tolerance for spiciness is much lower than mine, and tries to avoid it while I seek it out, got the spicy enchiladas. A shame to see those beautiful dark-green, home-roasted poblanos, full of fire, discarded on the side due to a simple twist of fate.

In the spring we started pumpkin plants indoors, part of our ambitious gardening plans for the year. They were the fastest and best of the plants we started inside, we were worried that pumpkin plants would take over our lawn and that, come fall, we would have so many pumpkins that the neighborhood kids would regularly harvest them for vandalous purposes. But of the ten or twelve plants we transplanted outside after Memorial Day, most of them died, mysteriously, within a week or two, no doubt victim of some insect or small hoodlands creature, like the skunk who lives behind our neighbor's shed and probably dug up all our pea plants. A few plants survived, but over the summer most of them dropped off until we now have only one, a poor little bedraggled plant creeping cautiously across the lawn. Something, perhaps the same thing that took out its siblings, is chopping off its flowers as it puts them up. It is clear that this plant, our last hope for pumpkins, will never actually produce one.

But yesterday, in the middle of the afternoon, I noticed a new, full blossom, unmolested by the plant's tormenters. Seizing the opportunity to harvest at least one small fruit from all of our pumpkin-related labors (squash blossoms are edible), I plucked it. As an appetizer before our baked enchiladas, harbinger of fall, I made Sopa Xochitl, a simple, brothy soup with squash blossoms, named for the Aztec goddess of flowers.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Moving furniture around

We've just finished putting a new coat of paint on the walls and ceilings of our bathroom, kitchen and dining room. Where there had been a layer of griminess, miscellaneous crayon markings and splotches of dubious origins, there is now a bright, shiny new off-white gleam. Most of the furniture has been moved back to where it was but a few things have been deemed unnecessary or suitable for storage in the basement, and the placement of a few other things has been optimized to create a bit more spaciousness.

I have always loved the conscious redesign of living space. When I was in high school, my friend P was obsessed with rearranging his bedroom, at least once a month if not more frequently. I spent many hours on weekend evenings, listening to vinyl records and watching him moving furniture while waiting for our other friends. Once I moved out of my parents' house, I engaged in similar (though not as frequent) behavior. In addition to forcing one to pick up all the accumulated clutter, the process of moving furniture around forces one to think through the physical use, social implications and emotional meaning of each thing. It forces a bit of de-alienation from one's physical environment.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

A little garlic

One of the benefits of being the adult who stays home with the kids and makes all the meals is that, when I feel up to it, I can make for myself one of the numerous meals that the kids would refuse to eat and H would eat only under duress.

Over the last couple of weeks this has primarily meant those wonderful summer dishes made with fresh ripe tomatoes — pasta tossed with diced, uncooked tomatoes and basil, tomato and mozarella salad, panzanella, and so forth.

But today, with the temperatures in the low 60s and the house still cool from the low of 40 degrees last night, I have fired up the oven for the first of the fall oven sandwiches. My favorite fall sandwich is roasted apples and onions with melted cheddar cheese, on pumpernickel bread, but today's lunch was an amalgam of various things that needed a home. A slice of sage bread and a slice of honey-oat bread, toasted and then topped with steamed collard greens and sliced Vidalia onions, sprinkled with some crushed almonds and topped with cheddar cheese, then melted in the oven for a few minutes.

But even more than the oven sandwiches I particularly enjoy in the fall, my favorite own-meal-at-home is garlic and egg soup for one: Mince some garlic, and sauté lightly in oil in a small saucepan for just a few minutes, until the garlic is turning lightly golden. Add any spices or herbs you fancy: cumin and paprika makes a nice combination, and minced fresh herbs are good here as well. Pour in one to one-and-a-half cups of stock or broth; add a splash of white wine if you've got it handy. Simmer the stock for 10-15 minutes to infuse the garlic flavor. While it is simmering, toast a slice of bread (I find this a good way to use up heels of bread that the kids won't eat). Crack an egg into the broth, and simmer another 2-3 minutes until the whites are set. Taste for seasoning, place the toast in a bowl, and pour the broth and poached egg over.

It is really astounding how a little garlic and a little care can turn an egg, a crust of bread and some leftover cooking water into a sumptuous meal.

Monday, September 13, 2004

First game

Yesterday was E's first soccer game. She is playing in a kindergarten league, which means that games consist of 30 minutes of ten 5- and 6-year-olds (five on each side) swarming around the soccer ball as it moves somewhat randomly up and down the field. E scored two goals, though one of them was an own goal. She was one of the most aggressive players on the field, and one of the few with a good sense of which direction her team was supposed to move the ball — except for a brief moment of confusion after the teams switched sides at halftime, which led to her enthusiastically scoring the own goal.

She probably benefits from being a bit older and larger than most of the other kids, and certainly from the fact that both her mom and dad have spent some time over the last couple of weeks playing with her at home. With her parents, she is uninterested in practicing passing or dribbling, free kicks or throw-ins, just aggressive one-on-one (which doesn't work as well for soccer as it does in basketball) up and down the backyard. I suppose it builds aggressiveness for a not-quite-six-year-old to have to try to get the ball away from an adult with some soccer-playing experience.

Adam Gopnik, in his fine book about raising an American child in Paris, Paris to the Moon, tries to understand the allure of soccer for the rest of the world, with its slow pace and low scores compared to North American sports like hockey and basketball. He comes to the conclusion that soccer is the most popular sport in the world because it reflects life — long periods of not much happening, punctuated by occasional bursts of glory. Soccer can be ambiguous — tied games are allowed to stand, there is no overtime or mandatory shoot-em-out to determine a winner at the end. And soccer, like life, is not fair. One can pretend that basketball is a meritocracy — even though the "better" team doesn't always win, the team that wins a particular game has usually played better during that game. But in soccer, one team can be much better, control the ball for 95% of the game but miss both of the chances it gets to score a goal, one shot not quite making it and glancing off the goal post and the other due to a lucky save by the other team's goalie. And then the other team gets one lucky break up the field, shoots the ball, the goalie doesn't quite gets his hands on it and it rolls into the goal, and the game is over, 1-0. The "worse" team gets its day of glory. Soccer's metaphysical teaching is the importance of celebrating any victory in a patently unfair world.

Growing up in the Midwest in the 1980s, playing soccer was considered only slightly less un-American than being a Communist. Not only did it subtly undermine American myths of meritocracy, it was also a sport that boys and girls played together! I remember attending, with my parents, one of the first organizing meetings for the voluntary soccer league which I played in for several years as a kid. It seemed almost furtive, held in the basement of the Unitarian church. We watched a video about the Brazilian soccer legend Pele. Compared to the ruthless and bland cultural hegemony of football, soccer seemed tantalizing and exotic.

The teams were divided up roughly by the elementary schools we attended, but my primarily working-class school couldn't come up with enough 9-year-olds to form a team, so we were merged with the overflow from the elementary school close to the university. That first season I was a bit player on a powerhouse team; we had the kids of international students on our team, and they knew how to play. We also had a lot of kids from middle-class homes, whose parents would practice with them in their backyards, and encourage them in playing this weird sport.

The next season, soccer had caught on enough that my elementary school had its own team. The whole season, not only did we not win a single game, I don't think we scored a single goal, until the very last game of the season. I wasn't a very athletic kid, but I was a little bit taller, a little bit older than many of the other kids in my league, and I had a father who practiced soccer with me in the backyard. The second half of the last game of the season, I came up from the midfield and kicked the ball into the other team's goal — our first goal of the season. We tied that game 1-1.

Scoring a lucky goal to tie a game: not a great American athletic story, but it was my greatest moment of athletic glory, and I enjoyed it for all it was worth.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Love apples

There's only two things
that money can't buy:
True Love
and home-grown tomatoes

— Guy Clark

It has been a cool and rainy summer in Vermont, and while our tomatos grew large, they did not start ripening in large numbers until last week.

Vermont has a short growing season — our next-door neighbors were reminiscing the other day about one summer when they lost most of their garden to a killing frost on August 30th. I have been advised by some not to even attempt to grow anything in the nightshade family at all, and there is no particular reason for me to grow tomatoes, as I am the only one in the family who will eat them. I never buy tomato plants, but each year somehow end up with several.

The tomato plants we grew this year were abused as sproutlings; left unattended in the back of a truck for several hot, dry days on end, they were not looking very healthy when we received them. I doubted that our "live and let die" approach to gardening would do very well by them. Yet we have ended the summer, once again, with vast amounts of tomatoes.

This year we have a variety: one grape tomato plant and one that produces shocking neon-orange tomatoes, as well as a couple of the more traditional big round red tomato plants. When tomato plants were first brought to Europe from the "New World," they were considered poisonous but decorative plants (the leaves and stems are poisonous), but loved nonetheless.

This week I've been eating panzanella for lunch every other day, tossing grape tomatoes into tabbouleh with abandon, and topping all of my frequent Mexican dishes with a day-glo orange roasted-tomato salsa. Who needs money?

Friday, September 03, 2004

End of summer heartbreak

Since starting kindergarten on Wednesday, E has been a little on-edge emotionally. I think it might be because she is heading for the first heartbreak of her life.

For the past two years, E has been attending a preschool in the neighborhood, and over those two years grew to become inseparable from her best friend A. A lives around the corner from us, so playdates are easy to arrange. She has older siblings, and has clearly learned telephone use from them; the two of them (E and A) will call each other and spend hours on the phone, playing games like "guess if I'm holding my hand high or low." They hugged each other when they first saw each other in the morning, and when they had to leave preschool every day. In fact, they used to kiss as well, but somehow societal norms got to them; not only do they no longer kiss each other, but E will deny that they ever did.

All summer E had been looking forward to attending kindergarten, because four kids she already knew from her preschool were also going to be going to the elementary school right around the corner from us, including A. But last week, we got a note that because of a sudden increase in students enrolling in kindergarten, the school had decided to create a second kindergarten classroom. And it turned out that A and E will be in different classes.

There is certainly no shortage of cruel people in this world, who break others' hearts for sport. And hearts get broken because complicated emotional histories can make friends and lovers act in hurtful ways for reasons that they don't even understand. But sometimes hearts can be broken simply because a chance event, a bureaucratic decision or job opportunity, separates people.

While E says that she is glad to be in Mrs. C's class instead of Mrs. K's, because A has already been given homework by Mrs. K, I can also hear the slight edge of jealously in her voice when she reports the other news from A, that A has made friends in Mrs. K's class. Of course, E has also made friends in Mrs. C's class. And A is coming over to play this afternoon. But will "best friend" status be able to survive a full year of going to school with other potential best friends? I'm not counting on it.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Falling off cliffs

Today is the kids' first day of school. E is starting kindergarten, and S starts preschool at the YMCA. Since E is supposed to be there by 8:10 at the latest, we knew this would pose some serious challenges, as everyone in our family except S likes to sleep in.

We made out ok this morning, everyone more or less getting out of bed when the alarms went off at 6:30. We had prepared last night as if for some great trek - packing clothes, packing lunches and snacks, picking out outfits for the day and arranging them for the quickest possible getting-ready time.

I haven't been particularly worried about the start of school, at least not consciously, but I didn't sleep very well last night. I kept being woken up by strange dreams. We were taking the children mountain-climbing, not along the gentle trails through wooded foothills which might actually be reasonable for four- and six-year-olds, but up above the tree line. The "trail" was marked only by a series of cairns on the bald rock. We must have been climbing along a ridge of some sort, because there were sweeping, dramatic vistas to either side.

Perhaps we were climbing Long's Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Although I've never made this climb, I often have dreams about it. Part of the trail goes along the top of a sheer, 2000-foot precipice. In the dream that woke me up last night, S kept running up to the edges of this precipice and staring out.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Veterans of all wars

I've never been much impressed with John Kerry, though if I lived in a swing state I would certainly be planning to vote for him (if Bush is anywhere close to winning Vermont, then Kerry will have bigger problems than me not voting for him).

I've seen enough politicians speaking at trade-union events to have a sense of how good politicians connect with working people. They don't speak in broad platitudes; they speak to us about the concrete, material struggles of our daily lives: health care, jobs, pensions, our children's schools. They speak in a way that demonstrates that they understand what it's actually like to have to balance a family budget. They propose solutions that are bold, universal, and make sense, not half-measures that reform some tiny corners of systemic problems without pissing anyone off. Needless to say, John Kerry, who I imagine has never had to sweep a floor, clean a grease trap, run a plastic-molding machine or answer a phone call from an irate customer in his life, does not do this.

But last weekend, while staying at the house of a friend who has cable, I was impressed with a Kerry speech for the first time: on CNN, I saw a rebroadcast of his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Clearly, these are Kerry's people. He spoke to veterans about concrete, material struggles — not only being under fire while serving, but being denied adequate medical care by their country when they returned. His promises were not tinkering with the system, his promises were universal - ALL veterans will get high-quality medical care, ALL veterans will get adeuqate pensions. I saw tears in the eyes of the VFW commanders standing behind him. For the first time in this election, I thought maybe George Bush is in trouble.

I just wish Kerry would at least campaign on a program that addresses the concrete struggles of those of us who keep the floor clean, the food cooking, the machines running (I'm beyond hoping for a politician who might actually ENACT such a program). Veterans aren't the only Americans who have fought to defend (or establish) democracy. I want high-quality health care and retirement security for:

every woman who has lost a chance at promotion (or her job) for pursuing a sexual-harassment claim;

every one of the ten thousand workers in the U.S. who are fired every year for trying to organize a union;

and the victims of the 1979 Greensboro Massacre (and their families), shot by Klansmen who were colluding with FBI and police to disrupt a civil-rights march.

And while I'm at it, I want everyone to read this analysis of the bickering between the campaigns about military service: Dogfight: the Gendered Degeneration of Politics, written by veteran Stan Goff.

Monday, August 23, 2004

A roll of black and white 1994

I've been in Ann Arbor, Michigan this weekend, without the family, visiting a friend from high school before heading down to Toledo for a meeting.

Michigan has always been imbued with a cetain otherworldliness for me. The first time I visited the state was in the fall ten years ago, on an ill-advised week-long trip with a recent ex. We drove all over the state, long stretches in the car with just the two of us, feeling the kind of constant, throbbing pain-pleasure of holding a sharp blade just against your skin, hard enough to feel the sharpness but not quite pushing hard enough to cut the skin. It was deep fall, the leaves were brilliant on fire, and the trip was captured in the desolate tones of a roll of black and white film. We drove up to the very northern point of mainland Michigan, actually drove over the bridge to the U.P. and back, and wandered around the deserted lakeside tourist town at the point, cold winds blowing off the lake as we peered into the salt-taffee stores boarded up for the winter. The physical memories of that trip are clearer for me than most of my memories of ten years ago, perhaps they were inscribed somehow in the emotional wounds I was holding open all week, sealed up inside my psyche in a way that other memories were not.

This trip of course has not been anything like that, just a relaxing catching-up with an old friend. I suspect, however, that my ability to keep my life now on an even emotional keel is due in part to the lessons of the relationships of my early 20s, and I still occasionally look through black and white pictures from the fall of 1994 and give thanks for our ability to heal our wounds.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Optional Laziness

Yesterday, I took out a temporary membership in the Bad, but not that Bad Parents club. In addition to watching the kids, running the household, and working a part-time service-sector job, I also dabble in web development. Usually I do this after the kids are in bed, or during those few precious days when I have child care but am not scheduled to work at my job, but yesterday, the scent of having a project almost finished (and being able to send a bill for over $800 when I finished it) kept drawing me towards the computer.

These are the times when I am glad to have two little ones. It makes it easier to rationalize making them entertain themselves. "After all," I say to myself, "they really need to learn the skills of interacting with other children, not the skills of hanging out with an adult." I tell myself, "you're their parent, not their friend," and try to make myself believe that the things I did do yesterday — making them healthy and nutritious meals, laundering all their clothes, and so forth — are what is really important for their development. And, of course, the lazy parent's mantra, "human beings are resilient."

Unlike the messiness of human development, the languages and codes used in web development are elegant and clean. Recently, I've been studying the sublime mysteries of regular expressions, or "regex." My head was so far into web-land yesterday than when a friend wrote me an email with "?" as the subject, I wrote a reply explaining that in the mysterious world of regular expressions, the ? symbol makes whatever come before it optional. If you want to match either "cat" or its plural, the regex is /cats?/ (the ? makes the s optional). It is also a symbol for "laziness" if it follows a special command character. If you try to match the phrase "pain in the ass" with the regex /as+/ (a followed by one or more s's), it will be "greedy" and match ass, but if you use /as+?/ the ? makes the + lazy, so it just matches as.

My friend replied, asking if I was subtly implying that she was a lazy, questionable pain in the ass. In web-land, there are no subtle implications — though things that you write often don't mean what you intend them to mean, they do so in a big, bold, obvious way (your program crashes). And a program doesn't worry about how many mistakes you've made in developing it. This is probably why I find this work so distracting from my family responsibilities, where words have subtle emotional meanings that are often unintentional and where it is the process of raising the kids, making the marriage work that is important, rather than the end result.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Home Ecology

One of the more powerful books I have read about ecology is Dune. This may seem strange, as it is set in a completely science-fictional world. However, its setting is a harsh desert world, its protagonist is a young man struggling with prescience, and re-reading it a couple of years ago, I was struck by how one of the central themes of the book is the deep and complicated patterns of consequences that flow from our actions, and how the hubris of thinking drastic change can be made easily generally leads to disaster.

In addition to being the home economist, I am also the home ecologist. I try to be humble before the complicated patterns of coming and going and doing and feeling that define our daily lives, and to think through all the possible consequences of intervention. I seek a certain stasis in the household, where daily routines are routed to erode the build-ups of dishes, toys, papers and leftovers that accumulate on counters, floors, tabletops and the refrigerator, rather than add to the deposits. I observe how the introduction of new ecological forces disrupts the balance, such as when new toys are brought into the house – until they become integrated into the children's regular routine of games and sharing, they produce intense squabbling. And I know that my family members cannot be made to change habits or behavior with threats or appeals to conscience, that I must instead rely on the subtle changes in family routine that I can effect myself.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Dish washing

I spent much of the day yesterday catching up on dish-washing. Normally I pride myself on doing the dishes as I use them when my dish-washing partner is away, but this past week I've slipped up.

When I was seventeen, a recent high-school graduate, low-wage worker and rock-star wannabe, I lived in an apartment with the drummer from my band. We accumulated impressive stacks of dirty dishes in our small, cramped kitchen, engaging in a kind of teenage-male one-up-manship to see who could last the longest without breaking down and running the dishwasher. We ate frozen pizzas (our staple food) off of saucepan lids to avoid having to wash plates. I usually triumphed in these contests, in no small part because of my ability to bring home a seemingly limitless number of 32-ounce plastic cups from the fast food restaurant where I worked.

In the normal order of things in our house, I cook, H washes the dishes, I dry them and put them away. A friend of mine says we should invest in a dishwashing machine, especially as H is going to be out of town for three weeks in October. But the problem with mechanical dishwashers, as H regularly observes, is that they really don't clean the dishes very well. Either you have to wash the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher (as my parents do), or put them through the dishwasher and have "clean" dishes with large chunks of food adhered to them (as H's family does).

Early in our relationship, H made an offhand comment about how a good marriage was founded less on romantic attachment than on the ability to meet each other's daily needs. I remember that comment as one of the first times I thought that maybe we would get married and raise children. The daily ritual of washing and drying the dishes together, by hand, is not what you write rock and roll songs about when you're a dreamy 17-year-old, but at 31, I don't think I'll be buying a new dishwasher anytime soon.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Skillet beans

Last night I was making dinner for myself and the children - H is in Mexico on important union business - sauteed pork chops, plain white rice, and steamed green beans. As I was trimming the beans, I was remembering how I used to cook green beans before the children got old enough to eat with us (or at least to verbalize their pickiness):

  1. Heat some butter or oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
  2. Add green beans, and maybe some minced onion. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 2-3 minutes (until onions start to color, if using). If desired, add some minced garlic and cook for about 30 seconds before proceeding to the next step.
  3. Pour in a splash of white wine, and stir to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add about 1/4 cup of chicken stock, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and cover the pan.
  4. When the beans are not quite tender (about 2-3 minutes), uncover and add one or more of the following:
    • almond slivers
    • golden raisins
    • chopped fresh basil
  5. Boil uncovered over high heat until the liquid forms a thick coating on the beans, season with salt and pepper, and serve.

Cooking is one of my favorite activities - not just cooking, but the whole set of activities involved in feeding my family: meal planning, grocery shopping, figuring out how to use up the leftovers, and so forth. It is, for me, the ideal blend of mental and physical work - it is skilled labor, and I have the luxury of being able to do it solely for friends and family, completely outside the world of buying and selling labor power.

I tend to think that a lot of socialists and whatnot are attracted to Marx because of the vision of a utopian society free of exploitation, but for me, the most powerful part of Marx's thought is his analysis of the labor process. For Marx, labor is the heart of what makes us human, and unalienated labor, where one uses brain and hand together, in voluntary cooperation with others, to create the desired result for oneself and one's community, is the highest form of human activity. Capitalism degrades labor by separating the brain (management) from the hand (the worker), and because the capitalist keeps the product, giving the worker cash in return. In my kitchen, I have a little space where I can engage in unalienated labor.

Of course, there are always new challenges as social structures become more complex. I now have to feed not just two adults, with adult tastes, but four individuals with completely autonomous tastes, three of whom are exceptionally picky and quite expressive about their distaste for certain foods or certain preparations of those foods. Cooking separate meals for everyone is not an option, because that creates excessive dish-washing work for H. So I have adopted new strategies, like steaming the vegetables and (when I have energy) providing sauces for the adults to spoon over them. But I still look forward to the day when I can once again cook green beans in a skillet.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Pearly white

I took the kids to the dentist this morning. E, the older sister (almost six), is so grown up that she went off with one hygienist without a second thought while I accompanied her younger brother S (almost four) to the child-size sink where they give tooth-brushing instructions and then to the chair, where he got his first professional teeth-cleaning.

Pediatric dentistry seems to have changed a lot from what I remember of my own childhood experience. I'm sure we were also given cheap plastic trinkets, or at least stickers, at the end of the check-up as a concession to our young age, but the pediatric dentist we take our children to provides them with sunglasses to alleviate the brightness of the light shining in their face, allows them to choose from a menu of at least a dozen flavors for their fluoride (there is an actual printed menu, with the flavors illustrated by pictures), and commemorates each child's first cleaning by taking a polaroid shot of him or her reclining in the dentists' chair, wearing the sunglasses, and filling out a "Historical First" certificate.

But perhaps all the pomp and circumstance is an important ritual of conferring class privilege. After all, when I was growing up, my sister and I were constantly reminded by our mother, one of four children of a butcher and an asbestos-factory worker, that we were lucky to be getting regular dental care as children. The point was brought home by the fact that, while we had to endure cleaning and polishing (without sunglasses or fancy menus), she was having to go to the dentist regularly for vastly more unpleasant procedures such as root canals. If my parents had been class-conscious trade unionists, they might have also taught us that employer-provided dental benefits were the fruits of struggle, first won in the 1950s by a union local led by Tony Mazzocchi, one of the great working-class leaders of the later 20th century.

Privilege tries to maintain itself unchallenged by making privilege seem like the norm. If we assume that all the white kids in college got their on “their own merits,” then affirmative action for blacks seems like a “special preference,” because we forget that some of the white kids were “legacies” (accepted because their parents went to that college, like the current resident in the White House), most of them benefited from the uneven and discriminatory distribution of educational resources in the U.S., and so forth. If we assume that having enough nutritious food is normal, then hunger becomes invisible.

The certificate is a message to my children that one’s first teeth cleaning is one of the small, but universal, rites of growing up, and it’s one that the kids in our neighborhood who don’t have good union dental insurance will not have had, and therefore they will be less than “normal.” L, who lives down the street, or E’s best friend A, will have teeth that are not as pearly white and straight, and over the years they may subtly become objects of derision or pity.

We haven’t really started teaching our children about privilege yet. At not-quite six and four, their political analysis is still at the level of “fair” and “not fair,” and I don’t want them misunderstanding and boasting to other kids about their privilege. But maybe I should start looking for a good children's biography of Tony Mazzocchi.