Tuesday, March 22, 2005


I am just at the end of yet another week in the Midwest, helping my mother pack up her house so she can move to Vermont to live by us. Between this past week, a previous week-and-a-half here in February, and two weeks with the kids in a different Midwestern city, accompanying H on a work assignment, I've done a good half of this winter's cooking in other people's kitchens.

In one's own kitchen, there is not only the familiarity of knowing where everything is, there is also the familiarity of your own range of staples. I always have olive oil, flour, onions and garlic, canned beans, white wine, tortillas on hand. Other people's kitchens throw up both obstructions and opportunities, especially because as a short-term guest, you often can't justify laying in the staples you might need to cook like you're at home — one onion is easy enough, but if your host doesn't use flour, it's hardly worth buying a pound of it just to dust your chicken breasts with it.

My kids will not touch anything leafy and green, so we rarely have anything to make green salads around the house, especially in the winter, as I've grown more seasonal in my produce cravings in recent years. But at my mom's this past week, with no small food critics underfoot and being a full two "gardening zones" south of Vermont, we've been indulging in the modern convenience of lettuce and salad greens at the end of winter.

Around this time of year, Vermonters tend to have only one conversation, the "I'm ready for winter to be over" conversation. I don't know if it's just the fact that we had an especially cold January, with the temperature rarely breaking into the single digits, or because I knew that I'd be spending the first day of spring out here, but I was hardly complaining at all, even as more and more snow fell in the first few weeks of March. The days in the upper 20s seemed warm enough for now; perhaps I felt spring coming in a way I haven't before, perhaps as I get older I'm more confident that the seasons will turn and things will be OK and we can be patient and calm.

Spring comes late in Vermont, and is full of dirt and mud and it's still pretty cold. It is a little exposed shoot of new life in a forest of still-barren trees, you see it there and do a double-take because it seems like everything should still be bundled up and hidden away. But it's spring now, and here it comes.

Thursday, March 03, 2005


Kansas is the 19th century, dragged willy-nilly into the 21st. It was born from the passions of the greatest and most passionate struggle of a century when struggle was expressed in novels and poetry and grand crusades, before trenches and aerial bombing and mass media took over. There were sober men of principle from Massachussetts, building settlements to win Kansas territory for the "free north" by the ballot box, and there were wild, poorer men from Missouri, doing the political bidding of wealthy slaveholders though they themselves never owned a slave, raiding and burning. And most of all there was John Brown, called by God in the noble cause of abolition to pull five men of proslavery sympathies out of their beds one night along the river and behead them with a sword. In the state capitol building of Kansas, there is a massive mural of John Brown, his beard and gun in hand and mouth open, his figure towering over all, proclaiming such a passion.

Minneapolis is snow and hope and danger. The late, great Paul Wellstone beat an incumbent Republican with little more than pluck and brains and a working-class program, served two terms as the conscience of the Senate and then was killed in a plane crash in a storm. Several weeks ago, the centerpiece of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion monologue was the lesson he learned growing up in Minnesota: winter is no time for caution; winter is for danger and for taking risks.

Detroit is a trap. Detroit has the highest percentage of single-nuclear-family homes in the nation, a product of the UAW bringing the auto industry's workers to the middle class, at least for a few decades. In the so called "Truce of Detroit," after World War II, the UAW led the way for the industrial unions of the CIO, in exchange for high wages and little houses for each of their members, to abandon the broad working-class-and-civil-rights social movement they had been at the center of in the 1930s, as if the immigrants and radicals and African-Americans and women who built the CIO fought heroic battles against uneven odds, built interracial unions in the Jim Crow south, took over factories, and died at the points of policemen's guns, for no greater dream than a little house in the suburbs, locked away with their husband or wife watching TV, heartache hiding behind each door.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Moonlight held together with words

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Those of a social-scientific bent (and I count myself among them) are wont to explain human motivations and actions and feelings by reference to observable, if not precisely measurable, social phenomena. "It's hardly surprising that M would leave T and run off with D," H and I might say to each other, unwinding over a couple of beers after the kids are put to bed, "given the fact that her last job put her into all kinds of long hours and adrenaline-producing situations with D, while only causing stress in her relationship with T because of her having to be all over the state." Add in, say, factor X in M's background and the stress between M and T being raised to the third power because they have three children, and you can get yourself a fairly complicated mathematical equation.

The great astronomer Galileo Galilei, who preferred the title "Mathematician and Philosopher" and who, after being censured by the Inquisition at age seventy, merely went ahead and laid the basis for Newton's invention of physics, was a man whose "genius lay in his ability to observe the world at hand, to understand the behavior of its parts, and to describe these in terms of mathematical proportions."* And yet he often referred to wine as "light held together with moisture."

*Dava Sobel, Galileo's Daughter