Worried about the economy? Keep an eye on the taco index.

We weren’t paying attention…and “taco” took over.

In the past month I’ve had vegan Southwest tacos, fresh-ahi tacos, and Thai basil-quinoa tacos. Just for the hell of it, I made taco-tacos the other night. You know, the ones with ground beef, tomatoes, olives, cheese, salsa all gathered quietly under the friendly roof of an actual corn tortilla.

I decided to look into this trend. First, etymology: The word supposedly comes down from a Spanish reference to a wadded-up cloth used for patches when firing musket balls. I’m guessing the cruelty free raw bar around the corner where I had the Thai taco with organic-soynut sauce does not know the origins of this word.

The idea of an entrée wrapped in an edible container isn’t new or unique to Mexican culture. Every cuisine has some version of it, from dim sum on down.

I’ve discovered something useful. Tacos, it turns out, are reliable tools for gauging the state of the economy. Here’s why: In tough times we like to touch our food. In boom times, we don’t.

Think about it. Remember those silly towers of fusion food marooned on big white plates during the dot-com years? Those cilantro truffle lamb aperitifs rising above reductions of pear that went for $19? No one dared touch that stuff with a hand…a chopstick, maybe. Mostly folks just left them on the plate and ordered more imported vodka.

Now, as our home equity vaporizes, we’re all about “finger foods.” Did you not notice that even Starbucks is selling its coffee as instant in itty-bitty bags? You can’t handle their prepared coffee because it’s heated to something like 700 degrees, but you can dip a finger into that jumped-up Sanka-esque stuff and breathe a sigh of relief: It’s all going to hell, but I’ve still got java.

There’s really no need to listen to those economic “experts” or try to keep up with the rapidly accumulating issues of the Economist that get pushed to the bottom of the magazine stack. Just keep your eye on the menus around town.

When you need a knife and fork  for all the daily specials, you’ll know that the long, dark night is ending.

On the day we honor Dr. King:

The dramatic “I Have a Dream” speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is the most often cited of the great man’s many public addresses and sermons. It is a remarkable moment in American history.

I think there is another speech that captures the man and the movement, and it came long before that 1963 day in Washington, D.C.

On Dec. 5, 1955, Dr. King was asked to speak at a meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, on the eve of what would become the famous and effective Montgomery Bus Boycott. (Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a city bus and subsequent arrest sparked the boycott.) He was asked because he had less political baggage than the other, older black leaders. He wrote his speech very quickly.

Below are excerpts from the speech at the first mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Society, copied from “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Global Struggle” on the Stanford University maintained site of King archives. Bold sections are particular favorites of mine.

My friends, we are certainly very happy to see each of you out this evening. We are here this evening for serious business.  We are here in a general sense because first and foremost we are American citizens and we are determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning. We are here also because of our love for democracy,  because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth.

But we are here in a specific sense because of the bus situation in Montgomery. We are here because we are determined to get the situation corrected. This situation is not at all new. The problem has existed over endless years. For many years now, Negroes in Montgomery and so many other areas have been inflicted with the paralysis of crippling fear  on buses in our community. On so many occasions, Negroes have been intimidated and humiliated and oppressed because of the sheer fact that they were Negroes. I don’t have time this evening to go into the history of these numerous cases. Many of them now are lost in the thick fog of oblivion, but at least one stands before us now with glaring dimensions…

Just the other day, just last Thursday to be exact, one of the finest citizens in Montgomery- not [just] one of the finest Negro citizens, but one of the finest citizens in Montgomery–was taken from a bus and carried to jail and arrested because she [Parks] refused to get up to give her seat to a white person…

And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November. There comes a time.

We are here, we are here this evening because we are tired now…

And we are not wrong; we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to Earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie, love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I want to say that in all of our actions, we must stick together. Unity is the great need of the hour  and if we are united we can get many of the things that we not only desire but which we justly deserve. And don’t let anybody frighten you.  We are not afraid of what we are doing, because we are doing it within the law…

We are going to work together. Right here in Montgomery, when the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say, “There lived a race of people…a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization….”

Huck Finn would be in juvy lock-up today.

It’s that time again. Another round of the predictable outcry in a school district over Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

(A good opinion piece about it by New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, here.)

The argument is always the same: Twain’s use (a zillion times) of the word “nigger” is insulting and racist, and not appropriate for discussion by students in this enlightened time. His novels should be banned–or worse–rewritten to remove the offensive words.

This fight always leaves me very cranky.

First, because I have always secretly disliked the novels of Mark Twain, which is like hating puppies. I’ve made a vow to try them again this year, just in case my literary tastes have matured. So, stay tuned on that.

Second: Why is it that the opponents to Twain’s writing are almost always such obvious misfits? Unpopular professors seeking to make a name for themselves; wacky PTA presidents, pastors of some church way, way off the mainline.

I’ve always wondered why Twain gets picketed and Louisa May Alcott doesn’t. God knows there is more truth in his view than hers…what family is as happy as the March clan? As for bad influences: Clearly Jo was a lesbian who marries that old guy just to get out of the house. And what about Beth’s mysterious death? Oh, and P.S., maybe Daddy March ought to get a real job, hmmmm?

For months now I’ve been working on a project that has me immersed in reading about our sinful history of slavery; of lynching, the civil rights movement and, more recently, Vietnam. Erasing this hateful word from literature doesn’t erase that history. It just makes it a bit easier to pretend it didn’t happen.

Here’s what I know for sure: We can’t learn and change without reading and seeing the stuff of the past. And if we don’t teach kids the nuance and import of context, they are royally screwed. Left without one of the most important tools for making decisions and forming personal ethics.

Here’s an idea: You educators, parents and others who fear that the language of Twain will embarrass or disrespect or corrupt our youth — why don’t you go to work on a study guide that runs through the various points of view on the matter. Tell us how and why it became unacceptable to call a grown African American man, “boy.” Explain why it took so long for the big newspapers to use Mr. or Mrs. or Miss when referring to black people–just as they did when writing about white folks. Trace the timing and thought behind the migration from “colored” to “negro” to “Negro” to “black” to “Black” to “Afro-American” to “African American” to a person of color.

Sanitizing language is silly. It’s a teaching moment, so get on with it.

In 100 years someone will be agitating to ban your study guide. I promise.

S.O.S. (Save our soap.)

That old reliable brand, Dial Gold, is really a thief in soap’s clothing.

The shape is getting a deeper curve all the time. This is not a “bar” anymore, people.  Soon it will be a sliver. Maybe we should start calling them to complain. Here’s the number: 800-258-3425

Hey, not all activism is about taxes, you know.

Henkel North America manufacturers this little moneymaker.

Author Rebecca Skloot and the Dwight Garner book list.

I don’t usually pay much attention to lists of “Top 10 Books” that come out at the end of each year. They tend to be too much like those annoying, whitewashed annual holiday letters:

Look how artsy I am! I could not put down that impenetrable novel you tossed after 10 pages! See how smart I am! I loved that biography that weighs more than the chair I sat in to read it!

This year, though, I read two books I knew had to make every list. The first was The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Journey of America’s Great Migration (Random House). I had the good luck to review Isabel Wilkerson’s book for The Seattle Times.

I wrote:

Many of us see the history of African Americans as bracketed by slavery and the televised moments of the 1950s-’60s civil-rights movement. Coverage of Barack Obama’s historic election replayed those midcentury milestones: cruel, brave, jubilant, violent moments. The past unrolled in footage of powerful speeches; attack dogs and fire hoses; a dignified, unblinking dark-skinned girl walking into a Southern school with white adults screaming abuse all around her.

Isabel Wilkerson’s exceptional book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” moves the story to a much larger screen, as she chronicles the migration of some six million African Americans who left the South behind between World War I and the 1970s. Her extensive demographic and social-history research, thousands of interviews and select oral histories create a fresh, rich book.

Wilkerson is getting well deserved recognition right and left. She’s already won a Pulitzer for her work at The New York Times – now she’ll likely get another.

The other book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown) by Rebecca Skloot. It’s a fascinating story (enough so that Oprah will movie-ize it soon) and Skloot’s crafting of the science and human stories is nothing short of brilliant.

I noted its publication  on this blog:

Cells from Henrietta Lacks, a cancer patient in the 1950s, started something that seems more magical than scientific. Johns Hopkins doctors who took the cells from Lacks, a poor African American farmer, never imagined creating HeLa – the “immortal” cells grown in culture that live on and save lives around the world. This is tireless, deep reporting sensitively done and written with unusual clarity. The very talented Skloot erases the line between lab and humanity with inspiring deftness.

Skloot’s book has attracted great press. Yet some of the year-end  lists of Top Ten do not include it. Hello? This makes zero sense.

Maybe it has something to do with the publication date — long ago in February 2010. We have short memories in this society. But, still.

An exception is critic Dwight Garner’s list. He’s the sharp book dude at The New York Times–the one who avoids making a review more about himself, something most of his peers seem unable to avoid. Garner’s a fine writer with encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary publishing and a charming sense of humor. Again, all too rare among the professional book junkies. His review of Skloot’s book was typically well done.

Garner also had the catchiest, most fitting one-liner of any book review in 2010:

“A thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty, ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ also floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of “Erin Brockovich,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “The Andromeda Strain.” More than 10 years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write. It signals the arrival of a raw but quite real talent.’”

Garner produced 2010′s  best list — and yes, it appears I am now on the way to compiling the “Top Ten Lists” list.” Well, someone had to do it.

Stieg Larsson: The man who brought us Lisbeth Salander

For fans of the addictive The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two crime-fiction siblings, this New Yorker piece by Joan Acocella is good stuff.

Only after I read it did I realize why it all seemed so familiar.

Last year on a flight to New Mexico I had a Swedish seatmate who filled me in on the gossip about the squabbles among the late Larsson’s near and dear.  It was so interesting that I forgave the man for his constant uncovered coughing, sniffing and nose-wiping on both sleeves.

Sometimes you have to risk your own well-being to cover the news. Sorry I didn’t write about it sooner, but Ms. Acocella does a fine job.