Now is this future. This future is now.

It’s not too late to read this novel. But you nearly missed the moment. Act soon. You might be lucky enough to fall into The Probable Future on a warm spring day when the daffodils are just finishing, the tulips are standing tall and proud, bees are starting to explore, birds new to your spring ears are flirting, the days grow longer, and the young sun gives hope, even as the Mordor-darkness unleashed by the far too-right wing-nuts who have captured our Republic threaten us all.

That’s the time of year that Probable Future is set in all its lovely magic. Alice Hoffman is such an optimistic writer that it’s a pleasure, a spring pleasure, to meet the women of the Sparrow family.

22898 A while ago, I was bitching about another Massachusetts novel, How to Keep Your VW Alive, one that I disliked so much that I actually seem to have thrown it away. In the little jumble of prejudice that masquerades as my mind, this Not Good Book led me to the odd thinking that all books about Massachusetts were bad. Oop. Wrong. Sorry.

And if you can’t get to the book soon, save it for next spring. It’ll still be new and spring-like glorious.

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Wayne County Airport, Bruce Reed, and Detropia, a documentary that pissed me off

It used to be that if you went through Atlanta airport you stopped over in Newt Gingrich’s district, a fact that enabled him to claim some global sophistication. His district, Georgia’s 6th, has been fairly solid Republican for years, so much so that quite often no one bothers to run against the incumbent. You’re dying to learn this I know, but JFK airport is in the same situation, only the other way round. JFK is in New York’s 6th Congressional district, a place so solidly Democratic that it’s rare for anyone to bother with a challenge. Your Robust Democracy illustrated.

It turns out not to be A Conspiracy because the pattern doesn’t hold for Wayne County Airport, a place you’ve possibly also passed through, knowing it as DTW, the airport for Detroit. The ancient John Dingell, 84, is the Democratic representative there. He’s been in Congress for 56 years. Longer than Orrin Hatch, even. But – and perhaps this is because he is so ancient – his 2010 election was a surprise of a nail-biter. Well, a nail-biter for a man accustomed to solid majorities. Dingell got only 54% of the vote. He’s running again this year.

Wayne County Airport, DTW, is 26 miles from Detroit, a nice safe distance. And, as airports go, it’s a fairly attractive place to hub, with a captivating fountain in the middle. Weirdly, the tunnel that takes passengers out to the commuter terminal is less wonderful. Scary, in fact. It wouldn’t be good for those with heavy PTSD or unstable eyes because it’s blessed with strange throbbing lights and loud pulsing sounds that don’t rise to the level of actual music.

But I have a soft spot for DTW because I once ran into my cousin Bruce there. He saw me and said, simply, “Oh, hello, Patrick. I have a book for you,” dug into his pack and handed me a copy of Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats.

You should read it, if only because there are so few current writers addressing political issues. (Name me two. That’s a challenge.)

Instead, political issues tend to get addressed by documentaries. Sure there’s the occasional dramatic like Syriana, but that’s all that bubbles into my mind at the moment. So we tend to rely on docs (sorry, filmie term) to explain the world to us. Sadly, the nature of the 90 minute medium means that there’s rarely room for subtle discussion in those docs. (Cue “what happened to the intellectual culture of yesteryear” diatribe.) They’re so often seeking the dramatic shot and glib assessment with perhaps a nod to All Sides of an issue.

So Detropia opens with one of those dramatic shots. A turkey vulture hovers over Detroit. Clever, huh? The film makers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, then do what so many other doc makers do; find various Representative Citizens to illustrate the gradual decline of Detroit and the way people respond. And there are essentially three responses. One is the response of centralized authority, in this case mostly the Mayor and remaining business leaders. He’s faced with a bankrupt city unable to provide even the most basic services. He makes big proposals, like the idea of consolidation, mushing together different neighborhoods and, in effect, abandoning huge areas of the city, letting them drift gently back to prairie.

But of course the remaining residents of the affected neighborhoods don’t much like the idea and say so at endless public meetings. Progress, if that’s what it is, is not apparent from these meetings. Ewing & Grady also visit union shops, mostly automobile-related, where workers are being “offered” huge pay cuts as the only way to keep their jobs. Not much of a choice, really.

Ewing & Grady also find another response to Detroit’s decline. Artists are moving to Detroit, seemingly because housing is so very cheap and there’s a nascent arts community. It’s a good place for them to start their careers or to start over. And indeed these young artists are changing parts of Detroit. Very, very tiny parts of Detroit. And they’re kind of fun to watch, brimming with Super Youthful Artistic Enthusiasm.

But, really, 500 potentially peripatetic artists moving to a city of 800,000 isn’t gonna change much except make a doc a tad more interesting.

The third response to Detroit’s decline is one that E & G seemingly miss entirely: community gardens. Big deal, you say, every city has community gardens. Agreed, but none (repeat, none) have gardening on the scale that Detroit has. There are 1,200 community gardens in Detroit. That’s more per square mile and more per capita than anywhere else in the US. And that’s just community gardens; it doesn’t count all the kitchen gardens across the city.

Isn’t this worth thinking about or documenting? Apparently not. And where is coverage of perhaps the most important part of Detroit’s high school system, the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school specifically for pregnant girls and teen mothers. What’s remarkable about Catherine Ferguson is that these teens are taught survival skills through their work on the school’s urban farm, goats and horses and all. (There’s a 2010 documentary about this http://www.grownindetroitmovie.com/ which I haven’t yet dug up but now probably will.)

Meanwhile, I’ll stay grumpy about Detropia, a lazy movie. Ewing and Grady fail to see that it’s not the  centralized bureaucratic response to a vast problem which will most probably be the thing that stabilizes Detroit. It’ll be the the community’s response.

At least I hope so.

 

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MUERA YO

I was sitting by the little pool in the back garden paging through a new book, taking pleasure in the prospect, when I heard the old metal gate next door squeak open, as it has for years, squeaking then scraping on the worn concrete.

Through the gap in the wall, I saw an old man walking into my neighbor’s garden.

The dry heat had been oppressive these last weeks. No one seemed to be sleeping well. Basements were the only tolerable places, there with the spiders, unused fishing equipment, forgotten boxes of files, and empty suitcases waiting for another, final journey. But now for the first time the sun was not all powerful in midafternoon. I hoped for a thunderstorm, a little death of relief, but these were not rain clouds advancing. A dust storm was approaching from the west, a stately progression of dark annoyance. Soon it would be too difficult to be outside.

In the brown hills surrounding this forgotten town even the streams had struggled through the season. Such birds as remained sounded harsh and tired, too lethargic to feed their young. From the town, I had followed one such stream, seeing everywhere the absence of water. Ripples that worked pleasingly in spring were small, morose and wan. At one pool, where birds and deer had once come delicately to drink, nothing remained but cracked mud, puzzled etchings, and hard tracks.

The preening young men who customarily spent their days crisscrossing the foothills on their special bicycles, helmeted, hearty, and earnest, were gone, leaving dust and dry weeds.

The old man walked as if every step was an experiment; as if each new footfall might reveal unexpected mysteries of life. He’d always walked this way, I thought, even as a young man, delighted with the hand he’d been given to play. Some days he felt that all the cards were aces — on bad days maybe a jack or a ten, but nothing less. He’d played a dumb hand or two, of course, realizing losses, but he had been the one in the front of the class, going toward the answers, seeking truth, moving forward, eager for knowledge. And then a university student, away in the capital for the first time, hungry and curious always, exploring women with the same fervor that he explored his science. How did things work?

Slightly balding, with an overdone skin, a white man’s skin too long indoors perhaps curled over a microscope. And yet a vitality to the step. A man to know.

He called.

I knew that the neighbors had gone away for the summer months. From our conversation, I had the impression that they had taken a place near the endless immensity of ocean, the mere presence of water having a soothing quality on their lives. Left alone, their house was silent, dark, the polished wood untouched, the clocks chiming themselves into final stillness, dust quietly accumulating on family portraits and unread books.

He paused, called again, and I heard the gate scrape once more. The storm came.

In what passes for a central square in our sordid little city, I saw the old man some days later. He was standing on the south side, there in the deep shade of the abandoned building talking with animation to a much younger man.

The men who make such decisions, the leaders of our town, swept up in what they imagined to be a post-war optimism, anxious to bring us closer to the sophistication of the thriving cities by the coast, had invited architects from far off places to submit their designs for a new building. I no longer remember what occupied that place before. Only in dark obscure archives could one find photographs of what had stood there, swept out of sight by this municipal improvement. Nor do I know what comfortable arrangements were made, which man found himself in possession of a fine automobile, which one spent some weeks traveling but, in their wisdom, the leaders built for us a building unpleasant to the eye, sheer walls of shameless concrete climbing floor after floor unbroken by character or window.

In the shade given by this empty offense, the old man’s gestures took in the building and seemed to me to imply a kind of scientific precision and rigor. The young man would nod and make occasional scratches in his notebook.

I meant to go over, to engage them in conversation but my tram had been delayed (as explanation, the company offered some foolishness about electrical current fluctuations) and I was anxious to meet a client on time. On my return, the day rawly hot again, sensible citizens well sheltered inside, the square was empty.

I had a friend once, a strange and driven friend, Augustino. Women found him darkly beautiful. Men drew back. In the harsh and lazy world in which we live, people said easily of him that he had come from a mixed marriage. This excused any judgment they were about to make. And indeed they did make judgment. After many years, he left our town and moved still further away from the ocean, back into the vast abandoned plains of our fading country where cattle stand stupidly surrounded by grasses and dense low shrubs. There, in the provincial capital, he found a place he thought he might work, a famous bookstore, for he was a literate man.  He telephoned the owner for an interview and an appointment was duly set; when Augustino presented himself, a striking tall man with shining strong black hair brushing his shoulders, the job had vanished. Oh, no, the owner declared with a businessman’s eye for truth, there is no vacancy here.

But it is of his exuberance that I think now. How, when rejected in his job seeking, turned away by the shameless bibliopole, he purchased by way of compensation a tuxedo. I am telling you – a tuxedo.

Upon his return to our miserable apology for a city, in a sad bar next to the loud highway to the south, beer always sticky on the floor, Augustino found himself encountering a group of men from an ancient culture who with gestures of amicable insistence made him sit down and surrounded him with drinks. After some time, one by one, they sang their tribal songs, calmly, heavyheartedly, a lost joy whispering vaguely above their heads. At last there was no one but Augustino to sing, he of no tribe at all.

Some days later, another appointment took me through that part of town where men sit out under the trees talking in groups, sturdy women sit on the porches of the houses looking out, and children run back and forth, heedless in the street, all so unlike my part of town where everything is turned in upon itself, cautious, trembling at what might pass by.

The road meets the railroad line that carries away the crude materials our benighted region produces, in return bringing the exotica all humans desire. That day the crossing was closed as a train went by. Some of the cars carried rudimentary graffiti, pale efforts at mimicking the menace of our big cities, others seemed merely to grime. A line of graceless turtles, the cars moved slower and slower. Finally, with a grinding sigh, they came to a halt blocking the road, as if the work was too much.

In the heat, people began to gather, waiting. Men with bicycles leaned them against a chain link fence and walked over to the railing where someone had scrawled muera yo, pero viva mi fama.  The lights flashed as they stood looking up and down the track and talking amongst themselves.

I was in my automobile, waiting, and waiting without patience. The heat pushed through my open window, an unpleasant embrace. I was not on time for my appointment. For that reason, when at long last the grimy turtles snarled in the iron heat, grumbled, and resumed their journey, when the men waiting at the railing had satisfied themselves that this motion was real, that this train would now pass, when the bicyclists were remounted, right foot on pedal, poised, when the railing was raised up, I, first in line, started my car and crossed the tracks with such intent that I barely noticed a workable, faded green automobile crossing in the other direction. The old man was driving. Perhaps he was talking to a companion. I did not see clearly.

As I went on, however, the image of the old man’s automobile came more distinctly to my mind. It was a car beloved by sophisticated automotive tinkerers, an International Travelall. On a day like this, I imagined the old man joyfully and carefully explaining to his companion the precise mechanics for overcoming the Travelall’s greatest challenge, its uncanny ability to stall in hot weather like ours.

Years ago, when I first began in business, I would occasionally deal with a man called Mathias. He would stop at my office and in the shadows of the room we would talk. I never determined what impetus drew him to our dusty town where his courteous tones and distant accent made him stand out, for he was not a man anxious to be noticed. He stooped, perhaps from shyness, and his clothing was habitually sober, in shades of gray or muted green.

Our conversations over time were sufficiently intriguing to me that I invited him to my house for a party during the season in our town when parties are given and grown men profess good will toward one another.  On his arrival, the house was crowded with guests, some friends, some relatives, some business acquaintances, and as is my custom on such occasions, I stood in the front hall to greet each newcomer. The most recent arrivals were still in the hallway, chatting easily, as men can do. Augustino, joyfully tuxedo-clad, was among them. Mathias stepped through the door and we greeted each other. While we exchanged our pleasantries, he removed his gray top coat, shook it out, and handed it calmly off to Augustino.

After that encounter, I saw Mathias rarely. Perhaps this was because he owed me a small amount of money, I do not know. When confronted, he asserted more than once that if I knew what had happened to him, I would not be so demanding. Such small losses are the tiresome lot of everyday business, so I thought no more of the matter. Nor indeed did I think particularly of the man himself, knowing from renewed and wearisome experience that to casually blend business and acquaintance in our difficult town is not always a guarantee of satisfaction. He faded from my mind.

As the summer’s heat continued, I had occasion one morning to visit the market. I was seeking a particular product, a great favorite in my household, one which I had been unable to obtain elsewhere. As always, upon reaching the fringes of the market, I passed the area where the destitute sit and haphazardly beg and passed further on, by the stalls where earnest women with poor teeth offer fraudulent charms and ugly new-age peasantries. It is only when one has passed the beautiful sad-faced woman from the south playing her violin for pennies, when one has passed the earnest young men with their high-flown pamphlets and pathetic appeals that one can find the full market, where anxious farmers attempt to sell the food surrendered by the tenuous possibilities of our region. The crowds, as they always are, were slow moving, lugubrious.

There was a politician there in the market, a man campaigning for public office, with whom I had some small acquaintance (though what motivates men like that will always remain obscure to me). Exploiting our acquaintance, he approached me as he approached others and offered his opinions on various matters he believed might be of some significance to me. His supporters stood about smiling encouragingly, brochures in their clammy hands. During our pleasantries, tall as I am, I saw over the shoulder of the politician the old man far off at the end of the row of stalls.

He was juggling.

From such a distance, my attention interrupted as it was by the blandishments of the politician, it seemed to me that the old man was using different sized fruits, perhaps a cantaloupe melon, a tomato and something else I could not identify.

I made my escape from the politician with what I hoped was sufficient grace so that should I need his assistance at some point in the future he will not deny me. Making my way as urgently as I reasonably could through the crowd, I arrived at the stall in question to find merely a group of shoppers and a stallkeeper far less interested in my enquiries than in the more lucrative prospects around me.

Soon after his disconcerting meeting with Mathias, Augustino, once more driven by his restless nature, had moved far, far into the depths of our sad country, to a region where men’s greed has made a mockery of mountains, where forests once grew thick and abundant, where rivers now run foul and red. From time to time, I would receive a letter briefly recounting his travails. At last, such communication came but once a year; we would exchange short notes and perhaps a photograph would come of a smiling man in company.

Over the years, the company changed. At first he smiled with a wife and a young son, then he smiled alone, then with a darkly handsome teenage boy, then finally came the time when he smiled shoulder to close shoulder with a bespectacled white man about his age.

The seamless drift of the seasons brought back the smooth young men to bicycle in the foothills above our blasted town, heads down, earnestly ignoring the palettes of color in the leaves around them, brought a thin increase in the waters of our dying streams while the appropriate experts expressed appropriate concerns on the matter, brought the stallkeepers in the market to a season-end desperation harvesting grimly before true ripeness. Even in my own introspective neighborhood, people began to pass back and forth, students and stern parents anxiously walking their carefully dressed children to the school where the bell rang crisply every morning.

Many years after I had forgotten the debt and indeed forgotten the very name, on one Sunday morning I saw someone standing on the corner opposite the church close to my house who, despite the years, I knew at once; the same slight stoop, the same taste for quiet clothing, the same courteous stance. But what I saw was a middle-aged woman waiting for a companion to cross the street. I knew this person but no name would come to mind and in my surprise I moved by without comment. Perhaps a month or two later our daily newspaper, in the hushed and strangely reverent tones our curious backward town demands of it, reported that my acquaintance had ceased to be Mathias. After enormous struggles he had become another.

With the change of season, my neighbors returned recounting disjointed tales of their travels. A series of confounding errors on their journey back from the pleasures of ocean had kept them stranded for several days in a small village a long journey from anywhere. Upon their return they immediately indulged themselves in the domestic dramas that must inevitably consume us all from time to time and most especially when we feel ourselves somehow deprived of our allotted hours on this darkening earth.

What with one tiresome piece of business or another, the opportunity to talk further with them thus did not present itself for some long weeks. In fact merely describing the hot afternoon on which I first saw the old man seemed improbable and unachievable as the season turned itself further and further toward freezing. Finally, standing at their front door at dusk, shivering slightly in the wind, I described their visitor, the enthusiastic old scientist, how he was a juggler, how he appreciated the internal mysteries of complicated automobiles, how he understood building dynamics. They knew of no such man.

It began to snow.

 

(2008)

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How to define yourself

Tell me what you think about white bread and I’ll tell you who you are, what your aspirations are, and what your background probably is.  That’s how powerful an icon white bread is in the United States. Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s book, White Bread: a social history of the store-bought loaf,  follows white bread’s history from its emergence as an accessible and cheap food, through its industrial and social triumph to its present state, despised by food connoisseurs and perversely, campily, adored by post-post-modern hipsters and self-identified “white trash” cooks.

The white bread story is hundreds of years old. Millers have been refining wheat for centuries trying to get it pure, and the more “pure” it gets, the more expensive it gets. So for the longest time only the richest could eat white bread. Everyone else made do with whatever bread they could get, baked from whatever combination of grains were available. And not necessarily baked well. And often enough they couldn’t get any bread at all. (You’ll remember “let them eat cake,” supposedly Marie Antoinette’s out of touch comment when told the poor in France were rioting for bread.**)

The New World wasn’t exempt. Bread riots in New York 200 years ago prompted local elites to try the first large scale bakery in the country  – but they weren’t able to make cheap bread, they weren’t making white bread and they certainly weren’t making those formal bus-shaped sliced squeezable things we now associate with the store-bought loaf.

That leap of progress had to wait a hundred years until well-designed food systems emerged. And until mass-production techniques were refined enough to use in baking. It was yet another couple of generations before commercial bread slicers came into use. And then the magic of the capitalist system gave us all Wonder Bread, the best thing America ever had. It Builds Strong Bodies Twelve Ways. Trust them on that.

That’s the Good Parts version of the history, one we all sort of know. It’s the version that celebrates sameness, uniformity, cleanliness, simplicity, and, yes, whiteness in all its meanings. The not-so-good version is the one that wraps anti-immigrant fervor around and into dark bread. The simple logic went this way: Immigrants are poor, they eat dark bread so it must be bad because immigrants are bad; they’re unclean and spread disease. So does their bread. They must be made to eat white bread because it’s safe, pure, and truly American.

And that idea worked really well for a good slice of the twentieth century. But then the doubts about white bread that had never really gone away, the doubts about white bread’s nutritional benefits, the distaste for its boring modernist design, the sheer blandness of it, began to be articulated by another generation, one that seemingly questioned everything about food. Some people even started talking about organic food. Radical!

This is generally interesting stuff, but I must say that this book is too much of a jumble for me. The author really must be fun to talk to because he flies off on interesting tangents all the time. (The history of Catalan bakers in Mexico, anyone? The place of gluten-free thinking in American history?) But reading his ideas in book form is a struggle. You might not want to try it.

In part, that’s because this is quite an academic study, a sort of lazy person’s historical materialism, masquerading as pop culture reporting. It’s mostly engagingly written, but it’s not good incisive reporting as you’d get with a Mark Kurlansky, say, who wrote the wonderful Cod: the fish that changed the world. Bobrow-Strain visits the La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, for example. It’s a bakery that makes what’s probably as close as you can get to genuinely artisanal mass-produced bread. (True-blue bread purists will say that you simply cannot have the words artisanal and mass-produced in the same sentence let alone the same bakery.) He visits the bakery, but he’s so deep into his discursive thinking that he doesn’t really manage any genuine reporting.  What happens while he’s there in the bakery? I have no clear idea.

Likewise, in his exploration of the post-modern rise of organic and wheat bread, he quotes the charmingly named Crescent Dragonwagon and her various baking manifestos from 40 years ago but he doesn’t take the time to find out what she thinks about white bread now. (Her latest book, The Cornbread Gospels, might give you a clue, but Bobrow-Strain doesn’t.)

Readers of this blog will already have an intuitive sense of white bread’s history and its place in our lives. Bobrow-Strain says that you can’t avoid having an attitude about white bread. He’s right, but to save you some time, here’s the basic bread sequence as he explains it:

Primitive / immigrant (dark, baked at home),

Modern (Wonder),

Post-modern (organic, hand-made), and finally

Post-post-modern (modern plus Pabst Blue Ribbon and attitude).

There are details that quick version misses, like the history of those Catalan bakers. The company they started, Grupo Bimbo, is now the largest baking company in the United States. They own almost every major bakery chain except Wonder Bread. Hostess, the Twinkie people, own Wonder Bread – and they just went bankrupt. Again. Another reason to bake and buy local?

If you’re bold, take some time with this book. Or just stick with your intuitions about white bread. Because you’re probably right.

————-

**It was actually worse than out of touch: the attributed quote is more properly translated as “let them eat brioche.” Brioche is made of wheat, eggs, and milk – and if the poor couldn’t get wheat, how could they possibly get eggs or milk?

*** note #2: unless the editor spikes it, always a possibility, a version of this review will appear in the Fall edition of Edible Wasatch.

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A sting. Or two. No, make that three. Or is it four?

It’s a leap to imagine that any reader of this blog is a truly shameless banker capitalist, content to make money without considering any social consequences, without giving a shit about those who might get hurt, without caring for anything other than the Main Chance. Such people wouldn’t take the time to read mundanities like novels, for one thing.

But those shameless capitalists sure are interesting for us mortals to think about.

A dozen years ago, in the 2000s, the Oughts, Moscow was the place to be if you were one of those Main Chancers. Russia was prying itself open to the darker parts of western capitalism, to that verminous, sub-corporate breed of international banks we’ve come to know so well in the last few years here in the US. Here, we tend to think that those shitheads can buy the kind of government they want, one somewhere between lax and nonexistent except when it comes to protecting their profits from taxes.

Snowdrops, A.D. Miller’s novel, tells a slightly different story about Russia. He was Moscow correspondent for the Economist during the oughts and saw the real differences. His novel takes Nick Platt, one chump of a British banker, pudgy, socially not at all ept,  generally a wanker (yes, there’s got to be a reason for that particular rhyme), and stings him. Once, at least.

Snowdrops follows Platt’s slow fall from whatever small sense of grace he might have had when he arrived in Moscow to work for a British bank. In a country where everything is for sale, nothing is sacred, and Nick’s heart is the least of anyone’s worries. Too bad that he falls for one of the two young women he encounters one day. Too bad that they gradually ensnare him in their schemes.

Nick Platt reminds me of the hapless Morgan Leafy in William Boyd’s lovely A Good Man in Africa (the book, not the movie, though that’s good, too, especially the luscious Diana Rigg).

Morgan Leafy is a foil for everything that can go wrong. In a curious way, Leafy is from a different, more entrepreneurial age, despite being not a banker but a British diplomat in a miserable African country stuck sometime in the 1960s. He might be very fond of drink and women but he at least attempts to achieve real professional recognition. Nick Platt on the other hand has no real ambition. He’s just anxious not to be another loser from suburban London. So anxious, in fact, that he inevitably confirms his loser status, time and again.

I’ll leave it to you to see the intricate simplicity of the sting. It takes six months or so, but once it’s complete and he’s both in love and out $25,000, he’s useless to the women. They disappear – and he’s become so worn out by the Russia he’s encountering that he hardly even bothers to follow through, to pursue. When he finally gets to it, he asks why they chose him as their target. They casually tell him that if it hadn’t been him, well, it would have been someone else. It was just the way he looked at them one day in the street.

I say that Nick Platt reminds me of Morgan Leafy, but reminds me means it’s rather to A.D. Miller’s loss since Boyd is an accomplished novelist while Miller is still a journalist with a clever plot. (Part of which, I happily note, is that I really do like one final lingering uncertainty of Snowdrops; whether or not the two young women managed to sting someone else as well.) Worth reading, indeed, but now I’m reminded to re-read Good Man in Africa.

But, really, there’s another wonderful sting you shouldn’t forget. It’s the Newman / Redford movie from 1973. A few minutes with IMDB will point out some of the strange failings of the movie’s continuity and authenticity, but it doesn’t matter at all. Seeing The Sting again 40 years later (insert age-related scream here) reminds me just how clever the sting is. Or stings. Now I think of it, there are perhaps four, plus a nice wallet snatch or two.

Perhaps Snowdrops is truly post-modern, in that our chum seems to know he’s being stung all along. Newman’s character in The Sting, Henry Gondorf, sees it differently. He says of Doyle Lonnegan, the man they’re about to sting, “you have to keep this con even after you take his money. He can’t know you took him.”  Better that way, perhaps.

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Lesser Emblems, Six Years Later. (And just what the hell does that mean?)

Not much has changed in the six years since I wrote this except the cast of characters we call our politicians. This piece castigates George Bush but you could readily insert Barack Obama’s name without interrupting the seamless narrative. (I’m a Yellow Dog Democrat and I can still say this, sadly.)

BIKE TRIP IN NEW ZEALAND 2006

Wellington street art, plus decoration

Thirty years ago, for reasons I cannot now remember — well, maybe I needed the cash –, I worked for a time in a London restaurant called Cranks. Cranks was a health food restaurant in the age when health food meant powerfully, soporifically heavy, grain heavy, legume heavy vegetarian food. The theme was echoed in the serving plates, which were all hand thrown by a potter somewhere at the end of the world in Cornwall. I liked to imagine him stooped and earnest over his wheel casting out [is that what you do? cast out?] plate after plate of specified Cranksware, all browns and tans. Then you’d go in the house where the long suffering spouse would be wearing something inadequate and badly knitted and sitting in a kitchen that didn’t work and which smelled permanently of wet baby. She’d come into the studio [it’d have to be called a studio, don’t you think? even though it was really a shack of some kind], bringing him yet another cup of cheap tea, murder uppermost in her mind especially when she saw once again his clay-chunked beard that grew sideways and never saw a comb. If she did go through with the murder, by now I expect she’d be out of prison, rehabilitated, have a sensible hairdo, and be doing something productive like, well, running a bank.

I thought about the plates a lot because I was the dishwasher at Cranks, always aware of their weight and variability. Which rather applied to the other people working there. Evidence of the declining Empire all around. I had the hots for Ethne, for example, a stout Irishwoman from Connemara. But the real point of this is that it was at Cranks that I discovered there are two basic ways to learn stuff in the world. One of course is the Socratic Method, generally approved and beloved. The other tacitly approved and generally beloved method is Public Humiliation.

See, as an integral part of the decline of the British Empire, there were bunches of Australians and New Zealanders working at Cranks as well as Irishwomen, cute or otherwise. But I couldn’t tell them apart. Well, I knew for example that the tall blond one and the Not Quite As Attractive And Not As Tall One were both from Down There somewhere but I couldn’t get beyond that. Until I called the Not Quite As Attractive One a Kiwi. Stop action, freeze frame, oh shit what have I done wrong? She made absolutely sure, loud and clear, yea unto the very echoes of Cranks, that I never mistook an Australian woman for a New Zealander ever again. No wonder I remember her as the less attractive one.

No wonder perhaps that I went first to New Zealand rather than Australia.

The first thing to recognize is that New Zealand is very far away. You know this, even your average state legislator might possibly know this, but I just thought I’d remind you, because it’s important. Shirley Hazzard, in her magnificent novel The Great Fire, describes what being so far away has wrought in New Zealand life. It’s grimly social, she says, because “remoteness had generated a fear of occasion, and the populace clung to the safety of its small concerns, just as their forebears had clung to these islands, greeting them as rafts and spars in the wild ocean, rather than as destination.”

Not only is it self-evident that New Zealand is a long way away, with all sorts of cloying social effects, it’s also closer to the sun. Trust me on this. Our first bike day, we rode out to Balmoral Forest. No, it’s not in Scotland, though it might as well have been. It was a proper glorious British day, blue skies, scudding puffy clouds, and a wind that didn’t argue too much with the direction we were going. But what made it Not Quite British was a real and immediate souvenir: severe sunburn. In a forest, for God’s sake. The ozone layer protection down there is a good deal thinner than a Northerner would imagine. Not surprisingly, the rate of skin cancer in New Zealand is thus higher than anywhere else. Which rather explains the deep dislike Kiwis seem to have for George Bush.

Not only him, but Dick Cheney and Bill Clinton, too. None of them, leaders of the quote free world, have done anything about global climate change and the dissolving ozone layer that keeps us all happy here on earth. Or should. And it’s dissolving fastest down near the South Pole. Down in that far away place.

And the polite little shouts of distress from down there aren’t heard in the real power centers of the world. One can readily argue that nobody’s shouts of protest are heard in the ultimate center of the world, George Bush’s odd little sample of a brain, but this has been going on for some time. As in pretty much ever since New Zealand was founded. When it’s so far over the horizon, why would you pay attention? For proof, I offer the fact that you probably don’t know who the Prime Minister is. You could hazard a guess that it’s a self-satisfied overweight white male, generally a safe choice for a mostly white country, but in this case you’d be wrong.

Now, it isn’t that Kiwis are exempt from blame, it’s just that they woke up to climate weirdness faster than most. The problem is larger, much, much larger; it’s humans generally. Humans like to explore, to move, to see the new, to feel the different. Ah, but when they find a place and settle in it they immediately, irrationally, irredeemably, set about recreating the place they left. As Hazzard says of the Kiwis, “they had left their destination behind them, and could only re-create, here its lesser emblems. Audacity had been exhausted in arriving at the utter-most point of the earth.”

Happens everywhere. How else to explain the British Pantry in Salt Lake City, with its shelves of sweets, dubious soup mixes, prissy tea towels, and other goods suitable for the expatriot? How else to justify the years when exiled Easterners flew back to Salt Lake from a New York visit with bags of bagels, their lesser emblems? Or not one, but two Tibetan restaurants. And don’t even go there with the coffee shop thing.

And that’s just the mild gustatory effect of exile. It’s just terrible when humans arrive on islands. And New Zealand is nothing if not islands. Skinny and tall (180 miles wide, maybe, with mountains that top out at 12,000 feet), but islands entirely. And so isolated that there were no humans for the first 80 million years of its existence. And in 80 million years, a lot of evolution takes place. (Sorry, but this bit is about evolution. If you don’t approve, skipping this paragraph will only begin to address your problems.) So all that time New Zealand was off by itself evolving with no outside influences at all. None. Time enough for a complex ecosystem to evolve, one that had no snakes, no quadrupeds, and precisely one species of spider. (I had to look this stuff up to be sure.)

So powerful an effect that the main food of the only hawk on the island (a true giant of a bird, wingspan of ten feet) was the Moa, an equally big six-foot tall flightless bird found only in New Zealand. And both were gone within 200 years of human arrival. No blame, that’s just what we do. Bagels to Salt Lake City, pigs & mongoose to New Zealand. Same thing. We screw it up.

By trying to make it look just like the place we left, we screw it up. Dive into any bird book and you’ll see the word “introduced” next to lots of birds. Yes, birds fly across oceans and stuff, but what possible evolutionary advantage could an English Sparrow, habituated to the insidious grime of British cities, gain by willingly migrating to New Zealand? None. But they’re there, along with the hideous Starling and a bunch of other interlopers brainlessly introduced by those timid exiles, anxious for the distempers of home.

And what’s lost in the process? Merely looking at the charismatic birds and ignoring the less lovely losses like that lonely species of spider, you’ll discover that, try as you might, you will never see the Piopio, the Laughing Owl, or the Huia. They’re all gone. Evicted into eternity with no chance of redemption. And we’re the poorer for it. Makes me think of Hilaire Belloc, who wrote

The Dodo used to walk around,
And take the sun and air.
The sun yet warms his native ground ––
The Dodo is not there!

The voice that used to squawk and squeak
Is now for ever dumb ––
Yet you may see his bones and beak
All in the mu-se-um.

Even when losing her marbles at the end of her life, my Mother was a consummate conversationalist. It was a boon to the tin eared among us. She knew just when to say, “oh, really,” “tell me more,” “how amazing,” and other helpful phrases. Most important, she knew what to do when people forgot something they’d intended to say. She’d helpfully begin to hum Arthur Sullivan’s little ditty, The Lost Chord. You may know the song. It’s about screwing around on the organ (that doesn’t sound quite right, does it? but you know what I mean), then finding one chord “like the sound of a great Amen” and never being able to find it again.

Well, there’s a lost chord in Ed Abbey’s writings. Somewhere in Abbey’s vast and shambling misericord, he talks about how useless the English language is for describing anything natural outside England. He says a language that evolved trying to describe vapid bogs and misty glens isn’t too much help in the desert. In other words, travel writing in English is something of a useless exercise. It’s an oxymoron. Example: we spent probably half the trip saying stuff like, “This is just like Oregon. No, wait, it’s like the Alps. No, I mean it’s really like coastal Maine.” Finally — stunning revelation — we decided that New Zealand was awfully like, well, New Zealand. No description; just that. It’s like itself.

So why the hell do we travel? We can’t describe it adequately, we can’t experience it as it once was or might have been (we probably wouldn’t enjoy it if we could), we seek out the familiar when we’re surrounded by uncertainty, and we certainly can’t get back to the original. What are we doing to ourselves?

Curiously, the only thing that humans do well without screwing it up for the rest of the globe is develop language. We’re really good at accents. You and I, for example, being who we are and where we are from, generally pronounce the number that’s between six and eight as seven. Kiwis generally say those sorts of ‘e’ as if they were ‘i’. “Sivin.” There’s a reason. New Zealand was first settled en masse in the 1860s and ‘70s and that’s when, as David Crystal helpfully points out, the right sort of people in England also pronounced their ‘e’ as if it were an ‘i’. And if you’re so far away, fearful of occasion, of standing out in any way beside the humiliation of vast distance and not having introduced enough of these stupid birds, then you’d emulate too. Case nicely closed. If you go to New Zealand by sea (an improbable indulgence, I know, but worth toying with) you’d have time to consider all this in Crystal’s lovely book, The Stories of English, 600 pages of thoughtful linguistic exploration of why all English is good English, even the kind of stuff you hear that gives you a frisson of linguistic angst. (Go on, admit it, you’re sometimes a snob about language use too.)

I really do understand why people want to move to New Zealand; it’s simply a very nice, very scenic place with good people. Polite, but good. But despite Auckland being a city housing the largest population of Pacific Islanders anywhere, New Zealand is awfully white and rather drearily British white. (What, after all, did I flee from originally?) And there’s nothing much one might call culture, just lesser emblems. No credible symphony, no dance to speak of, no art museums. They do history well, partly because they’re very aware of heritage and have good sense of design, but would I want to move there? No. Anyway, there’s no Cranks.

© Patrick de Freitas 2006

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Easy murder

A detective thriller set in northern England, Yorkshire to be precise, tho’ you needn’t worry about accents defeating you. The lead-in is a perfectly appropriate quote from L.P. Hartley’s classic novel ‘The Go Between’ : “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Indeed they do.

Peter Robinson is a new discovery for me. What a find! I’ll be reading more. There are at least a dozen; now that I’m done with all the Donna Leons I can find, these may be my next series when I need a detective fix.

Get it from http://www.indiebound.com

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Two books not to read

I don’t often abandon books. Or I don’t think I do, though, if I looked soberly and honestly at the 75 or so books stacked on our coffee table (yeah, it’s big & strong), I’d need to admit that I’ve started quite a few and just sort of put them down. For a year. Or forever. The coffee table clearly needs to be renamed The Table of Grand Intentions and Abandoned Dreams.

But actively abandoning a book is rather different. And it’s what I did with this Christopher Boucher book. I’m sure I bought it because of the clever cover and because I was in the mood to be charmed. But it didn’t work.


It’s sort of a Blue Man Group on paper. If you’ve ever been to one of their performances, you’ll perhaps agree that the first 15 minutes is really fun, the second 15 is fun, the third merely smile-inducing and by the end the people sitting behind you are ill-dressed overweight boors, your seat is really uncomfortable, the sightlines suck, and you simply can’t imagine why everyone thinks these Blue Men are so good. Yawn.

Same with this. The cuteness of having a protagonist VW with a Name and a Personality wears off fast. And it’s set relentlessly in Massachusetts, a clever rural state, it turns out. It’s a puzzle of a whimsical regional novel, the kind that’s published by East Coast publishers who don’t understand that regional whimsy isn’t necessarily worth national attention. (I got the book in Seattle. My bad. The buyer for Elliot Bay Books’s bad.)

You can also skip The Feng Shui Detective, Nury Vittachi’s detective (really?) novel set in Singapore. It’s worth it for what I rather ignorantly imagine is a useful mood portrait of Singapore or maybe just so you can get an idea of what Feng Shui might really be like in a society that sometimes understands the idea. But not as a novel. That said, I did finish it, hoping foolishly for a resolution to a rather not engaging crime.

In a surge of lame charity, let me just add that the book is printed on really nice paper and has a nice binding. ☺

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Just like us, only smaller

Have you ever seen a swarm of bees in flight? If ever you’re lucky enough to see one, maybe sometime this spring, pay close attention. Really, really close attention. See the speed at which they move, with faster bees on the outside, pointing the slower bees in the right direction. See the careful way they make sure the queen is in the middle of the swarm, ensuring the hive’s success when it makes its final nest (she’s the only one who lays eggs). Notice that the bees don’t wander off on their own; they stay with their swarm-mates, all with one unified goal.

The swarm is making its way to an agreed-upon hive site that will almost certainly be the optimal place for them to thrive and prosper for the year. It’ll be a site that the swarm’s scout bees have identified, carefully researched, and then suggested – and promoted — to the other members of the swarm. When agreement is reached, the bees fly to this new home.

What you’re seeing is a version of democracy in action. That, at least, is Thomas Seeley’s idea. Honeybee Democracy is the fascinating explanation of that idea and the research underlying it. Seeley has spent his life on this research, trying to find out how honeybees in the wild decide where to make their new home. Researchers in post-war Germany had already figured out the basics, that scout bees looking for a new nest site return to their swarm with reports on places they’ve found and then somehow get all the other bees to agree to go to the site.

What Seeley and his colleagues have done is figure out precisely how they do that. And what a lifetime of research it is! There can be up to 10,000 bees in a swarm. (Yes, you need to count a swarm or two or three just to make sure.) Scout bees go out to look for a good place. The scouts tend to be older, more experienced bees. (Yes, you need to figure out how to age a bee.) These scout bees research hive sites and almost always choose the optimal one to report on. (To get data on that, you’ll need an island with no potential natural hive sites and five or six potential human-made hives of varying quality for comparison. Happily there is such a place, Appledore Island, off the East Coast.) The scouts then report back to the swarm, telling them about the quality and direction of the proposed site. (The early German researchers had figured out the direction part of this equation in the 1950s but this new research showed that bees come back to the swarm and report qualitative — yes, qualitative — information about the various sites.)

The heart of Honeybee Democracy describes just how the bees make their destination decision. Seeley shows that it’s surprisingly like a New England town meeting, with everyone getting to say their piece but no one leader dominating or directing the discussion. (Despite her name, the queen is not a leader. She’s merely a highly specialized egg-laying bee with no other authority at all.) Seeley shows that the way bees make their collective decision is the same as the way the human brain works in optimizing our rational decisions; we take all sorts of inputs, research them, consider them, and then decide. So do bees, only there are 10,000 of them acting as what seems like one mind. Amazing.

This is a book by a scientist reporting on scientific research, so there are lots of charts and tables and detailed info on experimental results and so forth, but if that’s not for you it’s easy to skip gently over those parts. (I can quite happily live out my life without, for instance, reading another description of computer vision algorithms for bee tracking or indeed the neurobiological basis of mammal eye-movement decisions. But that’s just me.) And because it’s research, I kept wondering about contrary points of view. Scientific research involves detective work and detective work means false leads and faint trails. So haven’t other researchers come to other conclusions? Do all bee researchers accept Seeley’s ideas? He doesn’t say.

Of course he goes rather beyond the scientific pale when discussing the idea of bee democracy, largely because we like to think of ideal democracy as a set of rational or at least semi-rational decisions. In those terms, bees can’t be rational, even if they make decisions that we can equate to our version of rationality.

Honeybee Democracy is a wonderful and absorbing detective story but it’s a detective story that never quite ends, because that’s the nature of science: knowledge is never fixed. In fact in the months since this book came out, Seeley and other researchers discovered that there seems to be a bit more heavy-handedness to the Which Hive Site Should We Choose debate than he originally postulated. It seems that not only do the scout bees do their elaborate dances to promote a high quality site, but towards the end of the discussions, they also attempt to silence their opponents by head butting them. Uh huh. Just like those talking thugs on our TV channels.

So it turns out that democracy amongst honeybees is even more like our version than anyone thought. Who knew? Next time you have a spoonful of honey, give a thought to the debate that got it to you.

This is a slightly edited version of a review that will (or probably will) appear in the March issue of Edible Wasatch. Buy the book here http://www.indiebound.com

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Tomatoland — aargh!


I once spent a season picking tomatoes in California’s Central Valley. News flash: picking tomatoes – picking anything on a commercial scale – for days on end in the hot valley sun is not much fun. It’s also not good for your health.

Kinda weird, that, isn’t it? You’d think that harvesting veggies all day long would be a healthy experience. Fresh air, blue skies, those lovely veggies, etc. etc. Well, yes it is when harvesting organics, but in the modern world of industrial agriculture, it’s unhealthy. Stunningly unhealthy. Consider: there are precious few sturdy regulations covering what kinds of insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides agribiz can put into and on the average commercial tomato. A few years ago, California’s fresh industrial tomato production businesses put a bit less than one million pounds of grim chemicals on their crops.

Over in Florida, the other major producer of commercial tomatoes, on about the same acreage, growers use nearly eight times as much. Which says a lot about how crappy a place Florida is for growing tomatoes (it’s humid & sandy – not good for tomatoes which prefer Utah-style summers). It says a lot about how lax Florida’s regulations are. And it says a lot about how anxious northerners are for tomatoes in the winter. What the market demands, the market will probably get, even if what it ends up getting is a tomato in name alone, something red, round, & utterly tasteless.

Barry Estabrook’s remarkable book, Tomatoland, explores these contradictions. How is it that the wonderful fruit we all know and love to grow and eat in the summer has become something so blandly ghastly in the winter? He looks at the tomato’s ancestors (in Peru and Chile, in a climate rather different from Florida’s) and marvels at the evolution of such a delicacy. Then he dives into the true subject of the book, which is subtitled How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruitfair labor. Estabrook carefully shows us how it came about that the scientific development of a tomato that looks so good and travels so well also meant that that same tomato tasted nothing like a tomato. It’s like a sturdy suitcase that travels well through snow and ice but when it’s opened there’s nothing in it. No taste. Nothing. Just pulp – and pulp relatively free of what’d we’d expect normal tomatoes to have in the area of nutrition.

It’s not just the taste that’s appalling. A United States attorney in Florida calls the tomato industry “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Perhaps you knew this already, but the field workers who pick the tomatoes everyone eats are often treated in a truly horrible way. Estabrook documents it. In the worst cases, workers are recruited in central America with grand promises, sign contracts in languages they can’t read, and then are kept imprisoned in truly grim conditions until they’ve paid off the cost of their transport and their food. Which, often as not, never happens. Even those who aren’t “obliged” in that way are subject to long days, constant exposure to toxic insecticides, and curiously biased systems of payment for their work.

Commercially grown tomatoes need these oodles of chemicals to thrive and those chemicals have a funny way of getting into the clothes and skin of the pickers. And thereby hangs another tale, the unsettling specifics of which Estabrook carefully delineates.

To me, a wonder of this book is that Estabrook has constructed it so well. He takes the reader from the delights of a good tomato (something we all know, even if it’s hard to define exactly) down through the depths of the horrendous things that happen in the course of growing an industrial tomato, horrendous to the humans involved in its propagation and harvest, devastating for the land that holds these tomatoes up, and to the quality of the tomato itself, that sad midwinter echo of what we love.

From those depths, Estabrook brings us out of the dark to the promise. He finds promise in the tireless work of labor organizers, fair housing advocates, the research for the perfect commercial tomato (one with taste, even), and the huge growth in organic tomato farming. Finally, he brings us back to the whole point of tomatoes – the way they taste when they’re good.

Organic. Fair labor. Could anything be more obvious?

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