Sunday, October 10, 2010

Homemade crackers with the kids

What with a looming danger of a full-time job in my immediate future, soon enough I probably won't be home in the afternoons with the kids. Not that I'm ever going to be as good a parent as the Sweet Juniper guy — I find it far too easy to ignore them now that they will occupy themselves reading or making WWII diaramas out of Lego or whatever it is they do upstairs — but I've been trying to plan at least one activity to do together with the kids each afternoon.

In practice, this has meant figuring out something to do with the boy, since the girl, now in middle school, has been playing middle-school soccer — meaning most weekdays we don't see her from 7:15 in the morning when she leaves home to catch the bus, until 5:30 at night when she gets home from soccer practice.

The boy really likes crackers, and I really like cooking, so a few weeks ago I enticed him into making crackers with me in part by showing him this video of Mark Bittman talking about and making crackers. So we made the Parmesan Cream Crackers (recipe here) and promptly ate them up. This afternoon, we repeated this with his sister helping out as well.

Here are the crackers after they were made (well, what was left of them after the kids & spouse had afternoon snack...):

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Spicy vegan "cream of" broccoli soup

I made this today to use up some broccoli that needed a home, vaguely inspired (sadly) by a recipe I read earlier in the week in a Hannaford "Fresh" magazine lying around the waiting room of the dentist's office. I wasn't really expecting it to be as delicious as it was. It is also a good way to use broccoli stalks and leaves if the people you cook for will only eat florets (like 2 people in my household).

2 stalks broccoli, chopped
1 onion, chopped
extra virgin olive oil
a couple of pinches red pepper flakes
white wine (I probably used about 1/2 cup)
1 can cannelini beans

1. Heat a little olive oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat and add onions and red pepper flakes. Cook until onions are starting to brown.

2. Add broccoli pieces and cook for a minute or two, until they turn bright green.

3. Add white wine, stir to make sure nothing's sticking to the bottom of the pan, and raise heat to high. Reduce white wine by half.

4. Add beans and just enough water to almost cover (you want to err on the side of less water: you can always thin the soup later with more water; thickening it is much more difficult). Season well with salt.

5. Cover the pan, bring to a simmer, and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until broccoli pieces are thoroughly tender.

6. Whiz up with an immersion blender, adding more water if too thick. Garnish each bowl with a drizzle of olive oil and some freshly ground black pepper.

Serve with toast or croutons.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Polenta-cheese chiles rellenos

Traveling to the midwest and southwest this summer, we ate at quite a few Mexican restaurants, and I took to ordering not a few chile rellenos, on the theory that when eating in a restaurant, you should order things that you generally don't make at home. A few were amazing — CafĂ© Castro in Santa Fe and El Mezcal in Lawrence, Kansas — most were pretty good, and only one was awful, smothered with so much meat sauce (!) and melted cheese that there were pools of saturated fat everywhere on the plate.

Nonetheless, after getting a couple of local poblano peppers at the Intervale Community Farm this week, I decided I'd take a stab at actually making them at home.

I started with Rick Bayless's recipe from Mexico One Plate at a Time. One of the great things about stuffed dishes, of course, is that they lend themselves so well to variation, and especially to meatless variations (not that I'm vegetarian, I just don't cook with meat a lot). Mixing some cooked polenta in with the cheese helped cut the richness of the filling without losing the creaminess, and, because it is zucchini season, I cut one up and added it to the broth for variation.

This recipe has a lot of steps, but there are also a lot of opportunities for doing things ahead — the only thing that really needs to be done at the last minute are reheating the chiles in the oven, reheating the broth on the stove, and sautéing the zucchini.

Measurements for some of the ingredients here are pretty general, because poblanos vary pretty widely in size. I probably used about 1/2 cup each of polenta and cheese, and maybe a few tablespoons of sunflower seeds, to stuff 3 poblanos. Making the batter with 2 eggs gave me more than enough for the 3 poblanos; I could easily have coated a fourth. I used some leftover potato-cooking water for the broth, which was perfectly acceptable, but I'm sure it would taste richer with chicken stock (veggie or beef stock might overpower the tomatoes).

Poblano peppers
Lots of oil for frying

Cooked polenta (either leftover or store-bought), cut into small chunks
Jack cheese, shredded
Sunflower seeds

Tomato broth
Onion, chopped
Tomatoes, chopped or from a can
Water, stock or broth

Batter (for every 2 poblanos)
1 egg
1/8 tsp salt
1 tsp flour

Zucchini garnish
1 or more zucchinis, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
A few pinches of cumin seeds

1. Prepare the chiles by heating 1 inch of oil in a large pan to 350 degrees. I used a 12-inch Calphalon dutch oven, and probably about 1 1/2 quarts of oil. Drop the chiles in and cook for 1-2 minutes, until the skin is blistered all over. Remove, drain on a paper towel, and remove oil from heat.

2. Mix polenta, cheese and sunflower seeds together in a bowl. I used roughly equal amounts polenta and cheese, but proportions could be varied. I prepared the ingredients separately, mixed together as much as I thought I'd use, then when I ran out mixed together a little more. If the polenta is not well-salted (amy homemade polenta always is, but storebought — or yours — might not be), you might want to add a bit of salt here as well.

3. When chiles are cool enough to handle, rub off skins, cut a slit in the side and pull out all the seeds and membranes. Rinse out the insides gently, then stuff with filling. Secure chiles with a toothpick, place on a plate and flatten slightly, and put in freezer for 1-2 hours.

4. Meanwhile, make the broth. Sauté onions in a little oil until just beginning to turn golden, sprinkle with cinnamon and black pepper, and add tomatoes. Cook the tomatoes down for a few minutes, then add liquid and bring to simmer. Puree until smooth with an immersion blender and set aside.

5. Remove chiles from freezer and reheat oil. Separate egg(s) and beat whites with salt until they hold soft peaks but are not at all stiff. Add in yolk(s) and flour, and beat to combine. Once oil has come to 350 degrees, take however many chiles will fit into the oil at one time, dust with flour (shaking to remove excess), drop in batter to coat thoroughly, then lay* immediately in the hot oil. Rick Bayless says to spoon oil over the top, but I found this had the effect of washing the batter off the chiles, so I stopped doing it.

6. Cook chiles on one side for 3-5 minutes, until nicely browned, then flip over (2 metal spatulas was the easiest way to do it — the batter is so light that it's hard to grab the chiles with tongs without scraping the batter off) and cook on the other side the same amount of time. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels. If you have more chiles than will fit in the oil at once, repeat with remaining chiles.

7. Heat oven to 400 degrees. After all chiles have rested at least 5 minutes out of the oil, put them into the oven for 15 minutes on a baking sheet (lined with foil for easier clean-up if you're neat like that). This will crisp the coating a bit, render some oil, and heat the filling through.

8. While the chiles are in the oven, reheat the broth. Heat some oil in a large frypan over medium-high to high heat, add cumin seeds and cook until fragrant (30-60 seconds), then add zucchini cubes. Make sure each cube has one side flat along the surface of the frypan and then do not disturb for several minutes — you want to get a nice sear on at least one side of each piece of zucchini. Test a couple, and when they're nicely browned, stir the zucchini around a bit and continue cooking until nice and tender. Toss with salt and pepper.

To serve, for each chile place 1/2 cup of broth in a shallow bowl, nestle the chile in the middle, then spoon zucchinis around the chile.

* I almost wrote "lie" here, which would of course have been an instruction to the cook to lie down in the hot oil, rather than to lay the pepper in the oil.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hotcake crepes

One of the best food finds during our summer road trip this year was Pamela's Diner in Pittsburgh, which is known for "hotcakes" — large, crepe-like spongy pancakes, served rolled around fruit or other fillings with sour cream and maple syrup. They were amazing, thicker and spongier than traditional crepes — kind of like a sweet white-flour injera. This is my attempt to reverse-engineer them; I'm not sure I got it quite right, but these are still quite good.

I used a 12-inch nonstick skillet to make very large crepes and got 6 out of this recipe, but I imagine you could also use a 10-inch skillet and get more crepes which would still be large enough to roll around a filling. Flipping them is a bit of a trick; I slid the crepe off onto a plate and then flipped them back into the skillet.

2 1/2 tsp yeast
1/2 cup warm water (105-110 degrees)
1 1/2 cups milk
4 TBSP butter
1 1/2 cups flour
4 TBSP sugar
1 tsp salt
2 eggs

1. Mix yeast with warm water in a small bowl. Meanwhile, melt butter in a small saucepan; when melted, add milk and heat until warm (105-110 degrees).

2. Mix flour, sugar and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Add yeast to milk-butter mixture, then add liquid mixture to dry ingredients and mix well.

3. Cover batter tightly with plastic wrap and let stand for one hour, until bubbly and risen. Stir batter down, re-cover, and let stand overnight.

4. Stir down the batter, and beat in the eggs.

5. Heat a 12-inch non-stick pan over medium-high heat. For each hotcake crepe, lift the pan off the heat, add about 2/3 of a cup of batter and swirl around to cover the whole pan. Cook until bubbles appear and the crepe is browned on the bottom, then turn over and cook on the other side (several minutes per side).

6. Serve rolled around berries, jam or other filling, with maple syrup and/or whipped or sour cream.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Garden of Eden

Yesterday while driving across the high plains, I took the kids to visit the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas. Built in the early decades of the century by one Samuel P. Dinsmoor, it is quite the bit of folk art and well worth seeing if you're driving across the country on I-70.

On the south end of this tiny town (population about 500) you come across this amazing concrete sculpture garden surrounding a house. Designed by Dinsmoor to be a tourist attraction, the house itself is pretty interesting. It is made out of local limestone (quarried just south of Lucas in Wilson, KS) but, instead of having the limestone broken into blocks as was traditional, Dinsmoor ordered long slabs of limestone and then used them like logs to build what he called his "cabin home."

Dinsmoor was really into concrete (a recent invention at the time) and he made all of the decor on the house (as well as the surrounding statuary) freehand — using his hands and shaping tools, but no molds — which is pretty impressive:

Well, no molds except the occasional beer bottle (this part was made during Prohibition, apparently):

You can go in the house (I'm not sure if that was the case the first time I came here, 20+ years ago), and see the storage/tornado safety cellar:

In addition to the house, he built a mausoleum for himself and his first wife, and had himself mummified (not wrapped up in fabric, but smoked to preserve the body). Per the old man's wishes, apparently, guided tours include a visit to the mausoleum to see his body. Another creepy bit in the mausoleum is a photo he was apparently very proud of: using two exposures, he took a picture of himself looking down on himself in his own casket.

But, of course, the real attraction are all the statues around the outside. Here is (not surprisingly) my favorite, the crucifixion of labor by the Doctor, Lawyer, Preacher and Banker:

And here is the Octopus of Monopoly Capital strangling the world (I'm not sure which bit represents this, but apparently one part of it is the octopus controlling the people by controlling their food supply — a timeless point, I suppose).

In another place, a man and a woman are using the "ballot saw" to regain their rights from the Octopus of Monopoly Capital:

In addition to the political parables, there are (not surprisingly, given the name), Biblical (and pseudo-Biblical) parables. Here, for example, is the all-seeing eye of God, being guarded by an angel with a flaming sword:

And the Devil in the corner, with God's hand reaching out to get him (apparently Dinsmoor thought the Diety could be a little more, ahem, active in trying to, you know, suppress evil and reduce human suffering and so forth)

His first wife apparently got tired of him being outside sculpting all the time, so he built a little face of himself waving into the kitchen window at her (the kitchen was in the basement):

Some more statuary:

When I first came here in the late 80s, it was kind of hard to find (it had just been purchased by a group of "grassroots art" people) but now it has apparently spawned a kind of "grassroots art" renaissance in Lucas, with a Grassroots Arts Center and this big old, I guess, commemorative plate by the highway as you come into town:

Friday, July 16, 2010

Our buried veins

I went to visit the Ludlow Massacre Monument today, in southeast Colorado. On my way down I-25 on Monday, I must have either missed the signs or been in too much of a hurry to stop.

The Massacre occurred in 1914, and the United Mine Workers of America raised the monument in 1918, but the story is rarely told in standard history books, and when it is, it is usually buried in a sidebar and isolated from its political context.

The miners of southeast Colorado came from Mexico and from all parts of Europe and spoke 24 different languages between them. They suffered injuries and eaths in the mines at a rate ten times that of their contemporaries in the East. As with so many organizing efforts, differences between the workers was the greatest obstacle to getting justice from the boss, but they succeeded, and in September 1913 they all went out on strike, together.

Their unity terrified the bosses, and provoked a barbaric response. Workers and their families were evicted from their homes (which were on company land), not even being allowed to take their possessions with them. The National Guard and state militias funded by the companies were sent in to suppress them, but they held strong. The union leased land and they built tent cities, in Ludlow and elsewhere, in which they braved the bitterest Colorado winter in recent memory.

After seven months on strike, and the day after celebrating Greek Orthodox Easter, the state militia provoked the Massacre — opening fire on strikers and their families, and burning down the tent city in Ludlow. Two women and ten children perished in the blaze, and five men and one more child were killed by gunfire.

They didn't win the strike — or, indeed, win union recognition until 1935 — but the violence did not break the strike in April. They held out until December, when the union ran out of funds and workers decided to return to work.

Though kind of out in the middle of nowhere, and unattended, the monument does have a guest book, kept in a box. The current book was full of names from the past two months, most accompanied by comments, many of them quite moving. This was my favorite:

("God bless the working people of the world, and teach big capital the generosity & compassion that the working class lives & loves by everyday. We are all connected")

* * *

The city of Trinidad was the economic center of the coal mining industry in southeast Colorado. While most of the mines have shut in recent decades, Trinidad seems to be hanging on better than many de-industrialized areas, and it has an attractive downtown with a mix of coffeehouses and art galleries, blue-collar bars and auto-body shops. Most of the buildings, and many of the streets and sidewalks, are made of brick.

It also has two monuments, erected by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Southeast Colorado, both monuments to the dangers of mining. The first honors and memorializes the miners who died in the mines, the second the canaries who served (and often died) as organic carbon monoxide detectors in the days before electronics:

My guess is that the "regular" (i.e., white) Chamber of Commerce would never have honored Max B. Foster and Archie Struthers and Ivan Zorich; it's good that they have the likes of Jose Canuto Barron and Reuben Nunez and Epifanio Martinez to look out for their memory.

* * *

Before World War I, German-Americans were the country's largest ethnic minority — and they were an ethnic minority, with their own churches, bars and restaurants, in which they spoke German, ate foods unfamiliar to most "Americans" and raised the suspicions of many a "patriot" — especially as German-American workers were frequently at the center of labor struggles. They were neither "legal" nor "illegal," documented nor undocumented, because the U.S. had passed no laws whatsoever regulating immigration from Europe (prior to the Immigration Act of 1924, the only immigration regulations were prohibitions on specific nationalities, such as the Chinese Exclusion Law).

The U.S. entry into World War I unleashed an intense wave of suspicion of German-Americans, and an intense campaign to suppress Germanness, especially in the upper midwest where German immigrants were a particularly high percentage of the population. Towns named "Berlin" by German settlers were renamed. German churches which didn't convert to English (most did) were vandalized, their ministers paraded around town by "patriotic" mobs. When this is discussed in history books — if it is at all — it is mostly characterized by the somewhat comical attempts to rename saurkraut "Liberty Cabbage" (the ancestor of this century's "Freedom Fries").

The vast majority of German-Americans responded to this by trying to become good (white) Americans, but it didn't give them all a free pass. When I visited the Los Alamos History Museum yesterday, there was a temporary exhibit about the internment of German-Americans during World War II. Over ten thousand German-American citizens and German residents of the U.S., as well as over four thousand German nationals residing in Latin American and Carribean countries were rounded up by the U.S. government and placed in internment camps, despite no evidence of espionage, much like the more well-known example of internment of Japanese-Americans. Some of them, including some who were Jewish, had fled Germany to escape the Nazis. Some were forced, by the U.S. government, to return to Germany during the war, where they were generally treated as American spies.

I think sometimes we on the Left underestimate the amount of violence and coercion that went into making white people "white" — it wasn't just the carrot of white privilege, there was also the stick of "Americanization." Of course, it pales by comparison to the genocide of native peoples and the enslavement of Africans that are at the heart of white supremacy — I'm not trying to make the kind of "my people suffered too" argument that many of the Right make to obscure the reality of racism. But I think that maintaining the historical memory of things like the forced Americanization of German immigrants helps us grasp that white supremacy is at its heart a system of violence and coercion, not merely prejudice.

* * *

After lunch at the Ludlow Memorial, I drove up Route 12, the "Highway of Legends," a two-lane road that follows the Purgatoire River (or "River of the Souls in Purgatory") up west into the mountains from Trinidad. It was advertised as a "scenic byway," but most of the scenes were of coal and coal extraction.

Just past the Army Corps of Engineers lake at the foot of the mountains lies Cokedale. It's a former mining town (the mine closed in 1947) which still has about a hundred folks living in it, just outside the Romanesque ruins of the old coke furnace.

Across the road from Cokedale is a massive slag heap; it's been there since the 40s (and before). According to the historical marker sign, on hot days the slag heap becomes hot enough to generate steam of its own accord.

Driving up Route 12 is much like driving up any other small road following a river valley up the mountains — except that the exposed layers of rock are clearly rich and black with carbon. Apparently the coal mining industry in the area and revived somewhat in recent years with the use of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" (that's the same process they're using to get oil out of the tar sands in Alberta).

I don't know whether the apparent instability of the rock faces alongside the road (there are almost constant "Falling Rock" signs) is due to the fracking, or the old coal mines, or just the instablility of the rock, but it has apparently inspired some desperate measures. Several miles west of Cokedale, and just past the big operations of "Pioneer Natural Resources," they tried to hold back the rock face with a layer of concrete (which is now cracking) — a sad and failing attempt to paper over the open veins of our energy-hungry society, of the consequences of our past.

Death, destruction, and a lovely hike in the woods

Sixty-five years ago this morning, General Leslie Groves and Dr. Robert Oppenheimer and other members of the Manhattan Project watched the first atomic bomb detonate in the desert of southern New Mexico. The Trinity test, it was called — so named by the cultured Oppenheimer, inspired by a line in a John Donne poem, "Batter my heart, three person'd God."

I had always assumed, along with probably most folks who know the basic outline of the story of the Manhattan Project, that the Trinity test was a key step on the way to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It turns out that the pieces of the "Little Boy," the bomb that devastated Hiroshima, were already on their way to the Pacific. The scientists were confident enough of the design of the Little Boy (a uranium "gun-type" bomb) that it could be sent off without testing — the Trinity test was a test of a plutonium "implosion-type" bomb, like the "Fat Man" which was dropped on Nagasaki three days after Hiroshima.

I learned this yesterday when I spent much of the day visiting the town of Los Alamos. Los Alamos is a little surreal. As a modern American city, it was pretty much created from scratch during WWII to house the Manhattan Project. Los Alamos County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country — an island of wealthy white people in the midst of a state that is poor and majority people of color. It is where the technicians of the Empire's nuclear death stars keep the arsenal humming, and they are well rewarded for that service.

Nonetheless, it is quite a charming place to visit. Unlike Santa Fe, which is more of a playground for the rich, Los Alamos is just where they live, so they're not looking to make a buck off of visitors. In fact, I suspect much of the tourist infrastructure, such as it is, is designed to entertain the wives and children of visiting scientists and military-nuclear-chemical industrialists (Los Alamos National Labs has partnerships with a variety of capitalist corporations, in which our tax dollars go to subsidize the creation of proprietary technologies, which are then resold to us for a profit). The downtown is compact and walkable, with a couple of free museums, a nice public library, a bustling Farmer's Market on Thursday morning, and a pleasant park with a pond and fountain.

The children of the nuclear elite must be a rambunctious bunch: I think the city has more "no skateboarding" signs per capita than anywhere else I've ever been.

Los Alamos is situated on a plateau right below the Jemez mountains, on the edge of canyons that stretch down into the Rio Grande Valley. Here's a view from the highway driving back down into the canyon:

The canyons divide the town into little fingers of land, and hiking trails are maintained in the canyons in between. The trailheads are right in the town — behind the pool, or the high school, etc. Sadly enough, this was the only hiking I've managed to get in on this trip.

* * *

The official science museum in town, maintained by the Los Alamos National Lab, is (not surprisingly) quite the propaganda piece for nuclear weaponry, technology in general, and nuclear technology in particular. My favorite was a display explaining how radiation is all around us, only a small percentage of the radiation a typical American experiences comes from nuclear fallout (which was actually a bit of a shock — we're all getting a small amount of radiation every day just from all those tests done from the 50s through the 80s), so really, nuclear radiation isn't so bad. Really.

They did, however, let a few things slip, like this wonderful statistic:

Thirty-two accidents have occurred involving U.S. nuclear weapons. Nearly all occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. Although none of these resulted in a nuclear explosion, two accidents — one in Palomares, Spain, and the other at Thule, Greenland — caused widespread radioactive contamination.

The small history wing was much more tolerable. They even gave some coverage to the debate among the Manhattan Project scientists about using the bomb. Most of them had clearly been motivated primarily by fear that the Nazis would develop a bomb before the U.S. did, and by the time they developed a workable bomb, the war in Europe was over. Japan had not yet surrendered, but was clearly losing the war — and one of the stumbling blocks was not so much Japan's unwillingness to surrender as such, but the Allies' demands that they surrender unconditionally.

On July 3, 1945, physicist Leo Szilard drafted a petition to the president, signed by 58 other Manhattan Project participants:

Atomic power will provide the nations with new means of destruction. The atomic bombs at our disposal represent only the first step in this direction and there is almost no limit to the destructive power which will become available in the course of this development. Thus a national which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for purposes of destruction may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.... In view of the foregoing, we, the undersigned, respectfully petition that you exercise your power as Commander-in-Chief to rule that the United States shall not, in the present phase of the war, resort to the use of atomic bombs.

Of course, as Gar Alperovitz has argued, in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb And the Architecture of an American Myth and elsewhere, the decision to use the atomic bomb had much less to do with ending the war or avoiding American casualties in an invasion of Japan, and it had everything to do with establishing the U.S. as the sole world nuclear superpower following the war.

But not to worry, the U.S. is really the best nation to be trusted with that kind of power. As President Truman wrote in his diary July 25:

This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. ... He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I'm sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler's crowd or Stalin's did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful.

The death toll of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is estimated to be at least 200,000 — most of them civilians, including women, children, and the elderly. The deaths were not merely those incinerated at once by the blast, but those who died horribly of burns and radiation poisoning in the following days, weeks, months, years.

* * *

When the federal government decided to establish the town of Los Alamos to house the Manhattan Project, they built almost everything from scratch. There was one institution on the site (forcibly purchased by the feds), a private boys' school. Founded in the early part of the century by a former member of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, the school was devoted to taking the weak, sickly or effeminite sons of the wealthy (Gore Vidal was one of the students) and turning them into hale, heartly, manly "leaders of men" by putting them through a gruelling regimen of physical exercise, sleeping outdoors, horseback riding, and so forth.

A few of the old buildings from the school — which of course became housing and meeting spaces and so forth for the Manhattanites — are still preserved today, and one of them serves as a small but excellent history museum run by the Los Alamos Historical Society.

The volunteer who greeted me when I came in took pains to explain how the history museum differed from the science museum (the one run by LANL) — it wasn't just about the bomb, it also had exhibits about the geological history of the place, and the history and culture of the indigenous people who lived there for thousands of years. There was a room devoted to the history of the boys' school, and the Manhattan Project rooms focused less on the gee-whiz science than on the daily life at Los Alamos in the 40s. These mostly young people (the average age was 24) were charged with a project that was all at once overwhelming, all-consuming, fascinating, compelling and terrifying. They were sequestered from the outside world in a remote location and provided with only primitive facilities (by mid-20th-century standards). They worked hard, partied hard, and clearly let their hormones run wild. A phenomenal number of children were born to Manhattan Project workers during the war years.

* * *

I am become Death, destroyer of worlds
— Krisha, in the Bhagavad Gita, as (mis-)quoted by Robert Oppenheimer upon seeing the Trinity test

The geography around Los Alamos was created by a massive eruption of lava sometime in the distant past, and much of the soil and rock originated as volcanic ash. The Jemez Mountains to the west are not volcanos, but they are bulges pushed up by hot magma around the edges of the crater created by that anicent explosion.

Reading that no volcanic activity had happened in the area for 150,000 years or so, my first reaction (thinking in geological time) was, "wow, that's pretty recent." But of course by human historical standards that is unimaginably long ago. I was reminded of Stephen Jay Gould's point that, whatever dumb-ass things we humans do in terms of pollution and nuclear destruction and climate change, the earth has time to recover and adapt, and almost certainly will — though we, as a species, do not.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Santa Fe: art goes to market

Visiting a city where you don't actually know folks is always difficult, especially if it's a medium-sized city that is geared towards wealthy tourists. Nonetheless, I spent a day and night in Santa Fe while on the way to Albuquerque, out of a vague sense that it was a cool place that I should see. Maybe this dates back to high school, when I had a friend (now a poet of some renown) who was a little obsessed with St. John's College.

Turns out, downtown Santa Fe is a bit like Taos on steroids: art and wealthy people. The same adobe architecture everywhere — here is a luxury hotel downtown:

Unlike Taos, however, the adobe is also broken up with some fairly attractive Spanish-style architecture: here, the performing arts center:

It was also hot, though the old saying about dry heat being more tolerable than humid heat turns out to be true, and the interior courtyard of the New Mexico Museum of Art was noticeably cooler than outside:

* * *

Downtown Santa Fe is, in many respects, very similar to downtown Burlington: a shopping and dining playground for the wealthy with a slightly bohemiam flair. It has fancy restaurants, aggressive panhandling, mediocre blues/funk bands playing in the park on summer evenings. But in one way it is shockingly different.

Santa Fe is apparently the second-largest art market in the US. The largest of course is New York City, but New York is so large that you can visit it time and time again and rarely (or never) come across an art gallery. Downtown Santa Fe, however, must be 75% art galleries, or expensive handicraft shops, etc.

Obviously, art is going to be commodified in a capitalist society — everything is, more or less. And at some basic level art is also the personal vision of the artist, and that can't be taken away. But in our little backwaters like Burlington, art is also play, it is community, it is something to do with our children. And in museums it is a social good, a collective heritage.

Santa Fe is the dark underbelly of art under capitalism: a reminder that the "art world" can only exist on the foundation of this massive commodity exchange, where the beneficiaries of capitalism's shocking inequalities of wealth stroll through heavily air-conditioned rooms, appraising beauty-objects priced at thousands and thousands of dollars, behind plate glass windows to make their power clear to all in this desert city.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Socialism and love

In the first union local I was involved in, we used to talk about "surrounding people with love." Not everyone, mind you — we weren't total hippies, just graduate employees. It was just a term we used for how to approach people who basically "got it" on a values level (that we deserved fair treatment and reasonable pay and benefits from the boss) but were confused by some combination of misunderstanding of unions or over-investment in their own (potential) professional status or wack ideas from the dominant culture.

My friend Steve Williams recently wrote a piece over at Organizing Upgrade proposing that we (the Left) "take up the challenge of developing a blueprint of 21st Century Socialism." I've been thinking about this a lot recently — before, during and after the US Social Forum in Detroit, while staring out the window on the car trip or lying awake at night during one of my many bouts of insomnia. Like many people, I feel a sense of urgency about the climate crisis, and — like too few people — I am convinced that the crisis cannot be solved within the capitalist system.

* * *

My in-laws, with whom I spent the bulk of the last week, are all good people, but they have a wide range of political, religious and cultural beliefs. Or, rather, I should say, almost all of them have political, religious and cultural beliefs that are vastly different than mine, and somewhat different from each others'.

If I'm serious about being a socialist, then part of the vision needs to be a vision of how people like my in-laws — including at least one or two who enthusiastically voted for W — are eventually brought to being committed to the project of building a new world based on human needs rather than profit. Not overnight, of course — given the current social, political and economic arrangements in the U.S., a transition to socialism would, in fact, mean that many white middle-class folks would lose a variety of "privileges" (large houses, SUVs, the psychological benefits of white privilege, etc.), so it would not seem to be in their short-term interests.

Still, to build a socialism for the 21st century, we will eventually need the positive commitment from the vast majority of people, including even a big chunk of the white middle class in the U.S. (capitalism, by contrast, can accomplish its main goal — accumulating profit — without anyone being committed to it at all; only problem is it destroys people's lives and ultimately — soon, in fact — will make the planet uninhabitable for humans).

I'm not saying that socialist strategy should be based on reaching the white middle class — we obviously have our work cut out for us in the immediate period just organizing the working class, overcoming white supremacy and patriachy, building internationalist consciousness, etc. We need to be strategic, but at some core place, we also need to have a long-term vision that surrounds everyone with love.

* * *

Growing up as an athiest in the Bible Belt, I've always been extremely touchy about religion — to the point where any real discussion of spirituality is a bit of an emotional trigger for me. If I'd been simply raised in a different faith — Judaism, Islam, Catholicism (not considered fully Christian in some parts of the Bible Belt), etc. — it probably would have been easier. I think most ordinary folks had it sufficiently beaten in to them in the last half of the 20th century that it's not OK to argue with or denigrate or try to convert people of other faiths, but athiests seem to receive less of that respect. Not that I was beaten up or anything, and not that it was particular horrible or had any lasting impact on my life chances — it was just the one axis on which I experienced the "you don't fit societal norms" that people of color, women, queer folks, etc. deal with every day.

But obviously, this is wrapped up in questions of power. And, in fact, I am noticably more touchy about religious talk from white, middle-class folks (and from Protestants) than from people who have less structural power in society.

Which has actually got me thinking — uncharacteristically — about whether separation of church and state might be one of those things that is less of an absolute value than a tactical neccessity for dealing with an unjust society (like affirmative action, for example). When religion is no longer used to prop up and maintain inequities, does it become something (like musical taste for example*) where we can all be comfortable with each other, even in "public" settings?

Concretely, the question I've been thinking about is this: My sister-in-law is a teacher who has given up a huge amount of pay (relative to what she used to make in the public schools) to teach in a Christian school. She seems to have a great philosophy about teaching (explicitly treating children like people), and my gut feeling is that she is probably a much better teacher than some of the folks at my kids' school. Would I be comfortable — again, in a just society — with her teaching in the way she wants to teach, being explicit about her Christian values, in some kind of public school like the one my kids go to (where there might well be more Muslims than Christians, and where Protestants are distinctly in the minority)?

Can we imagine a socialism where that is possible?

*as long as you don't make anyone listen to Phil Collins. That is just not acceptable under any social system.

Monday, July 12, 2010

South through Colorado, then across northwest New Mexico

Believe it or not, almost all of the driving on this road trip so far has been done by tireless spouse H, except for a 60-mile stretch in Iowa along US 6, during which H (and the kids) slept. This is because H doesn't like being a passenger, and, when not sleeping, conveys this dislike through fairly regular criticism of the driver (usually silent criticism if the driver doesn't happen to be a spouse, whom one can freely criticize...)

But today H flew home on account of having a real job and having to get back to work (3 driving comments during the 30-minute trip to the airport), and we are leaving the kids with H's mom for the week, so I am off to New Mexico, for a little bit of solo travel and a little bit of organizational exchange with the South West Organizing Project in Albuquerque.

After leaving the airport, I drove south on I-25 through the seemingly endless exurbs of Denver, then the suburban-religio-military complex that is Colorado Springs, which was kind of a depressing way to start the day.

South of Colorado Springs on I-25 comes Pueblo, a small industrial city which still has some signs of industry, believe it or not. One of those signs is a bit south of the city, an oil refinery with one, prominent wind turbine displayed out front:

After Pueblo it is pretty empty out there on the plains, and I got pretty bored of driving on the interstate. In part because construction made it difficult to see and access the exit, I failed to stop in Trinidad, which is too bad, because, at least from the interstate, it looked like it had a nice downtown, and I was definitely needing to get out and stretch my legs. Instead, I drove across the Raton Pass into New Mexico, and stopped at the New Mexico Vistor Information Center in Raton, which was kind of out in a strip of Denny's and Sonics and such like, and not such a great place to stop.

On impulse, while looking at the map and thinking about another three hours on the interstate to get to Santa Fe, I decided to cut across on US 64 to Taos instead. The first thirty or so miles were easy driving, a nearly empty two-laner across nearly flat plains:

But then, past Cimarron, the highway started snaking up into the mountains, and I think between all the curves and everything I maybe averaged 30 miles per hour, taking two hours to get up and across and over to Taos. It was beautiful, though. I even stopped at the Palisades Sill, a layer of igneous rock that the Cimarron river has cut into:

* * *

I'm not sure what possessed me to go to Taos, other than perhaps the lyrics of an obscure Jules Shear song:

On his eighteenth birthday, Jimmy Taylor rode to Taos
With his girlfriend Lucy, to rob a bank and buy a house

The ubiquitous adobe architecture in the downtown area makes Taos look a bit like if Stowe had been built by the Barbapapas — or at least by Barbapapas who were primarily interested in selling art and a kind of art/nature lifestyle to rich people rather than creating an eco-anarchist paradise.

Instead of browsing the expensive art, I paid 25 cents for some parking time and wandered around downtown for awhile, then found a grocery store and had a lunch of yogurt, apricots, crackers and lemonade for $5.75. Taos on six dollars a day.

Clearly, rain is not a problem in Taos. Designing your roofs so that rainwater pours out onto your customers' cars would not fly in Vermont:

(incidentally, that Durango from Texas parked next to me was running its engine — someone was napping in the passenger seat — during the more than an hour that I was parked there)

It was interesting, but I wasn't sad to leave. On a final note, even the Walmart in Taos has an adobe look to it:

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Western State College, or, the Novosibirsks of American academia could be worse

Gunnison, Colorado — where I've been staying for the past week — is also home to Western State College, a public 4-year liberal arts college. Wandering around the campus the other day (which runs up against a park the kids & their cousins were playing in), it occurred to me that had I pursued the Ph.D. I supposedly entered graduate school to achieve, I likely would have ended up in a place very much like this.

I think probably anyone who enters graduate school in an academic discipline, with the intention of becoming a professor, at some level at least secretly harbors fantasies of teaching at a prestigious institution — maybe not Harvard or Yale or Princeton, but at least a major research university like the Universities of Wisconsin or Texas or so forth — and doing important research. If you're interested in changing the world and not just studying it, you want to be Robin D.G. Kelley or Peter Rachleff — or at least in a large urban area where there are movement institutions you can be part of, or a celebrity supporter of, etc.

The reality, though, is that most folks are going to end up in out-of-the-way places like Gunnison, political action limited to an Obama bumper sticker and buying organic vegetables at the farmers' market, desperately trying to engage ill-prepared students in the excitement of, say, labor history, knowing full well that even those you reach are going to slip back into the miasma of American anti-intellectualism as soon as they are out of school.

* * *

That said, Western State appears, like Gunnison, quite charming — it could certainly be worse. What I presume are the original buildings have a kind of nice stucco and slightly Spanish architecture to them:

Like most college campuses, there are some unattractive blocks built during the 60s expansion of higher education:

No college is complete without a brand spanking new student center built in 90s bland-o-rific style:

And, most importantly, a billboard advertising new building projects:

Gunnison, Colorado

We've spent the past week family-reunion-izing with H's family in Gunnison, Colorado — not really H's hometown, so much, but one of the numerous places they lived (and arguably the real hometown for younger siblings), and where the family matriarch currently resides.

Gunnison is in a broad, fairly flat valley just west of the continental divide. The house we stayed at is in an area just outside of town of ranching land being slowly turned into suburban residences:

... and with some nice sunsets.

The town itself is quite charming. The clear absence (or perhaps just weakness or poor taste) of any kind of Design Review Board has led to a kind of anarchic approach to architecture which would never have arisen in the more conservative building approach of New England:

(the second house apparently being designed so that small performances could be given on the stage in front of the house — a disturbing thought, given the loud and apparently drunken debates about the artistic merits of various Lynyrd Skynyrd songs coming from the back of the house at 11am)

The freewheeling architectural style has also apparently given rise to a creative approach to greenbelts, such as this embanked and stone-walled one:

However, the most curious aspect of downtown Gunnison is the fact that, on either side of the north-south streets (though not the east-west ones), run foot-wide irrigation ditches — the maintenance of which is presumably a municipal responsibility. Most of them are simple dirt ditches, but I did find one concrete-lined stretch:

Residents do in fact install pumps to pull water out of these ditches to irrigate their lawns, sometimes covered with little huts:

And, naturally, no 9-year-old boy could resist the temptation of travelling by jumping from one side of the ditch to the other (although I had my camera ready to catch it, he did not in fact fall in):