Reverend Shuttlesworth and Steve Jobs: Life changers.

The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth died earlier this week, but you probably missed the news. It was crowded out by the passing of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

The two men had quite a bit in common, actually. You would not have known it to look at them, or listen to them,  but they did.

Jobs in public was a soft-spoken white nerd whose energy and genius changed how we communicate with each other. Even his competitors bowed their heads in real mourning at the news that the 56-year-old had passed away.

Shuttlesworth was a fiery preacher, a black activist who was shot at, arrested, blasted out of bed by bombs, and snubbed by the bigger names in the civil rights movement. He embarrassed some of those polished black leaders. His grammar was sometimes faulty and he had little interest in subtle political maneuvering. But he got them to come to Birmingham, and history was made.

Like a Biblical prophet, he said out loud what God put in his ear, and he was one of the bravest men of our time. Without him the blight of Jim Crow segregation would have poisoned this country even longer. He was 89 when he died, old age taking what Birmingham bully Bull Connor and countless racists could not accomplish.

Connor, you may know, was the police commissioner who became famous for turning dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators, including children, during the well-publicized protests in Birmingham in 1963.  Shuttlesworth was one of the injured and Connor told the The New York Times: “I waited a week to see Shuttlesworth get hit with a hose. I’m sorry I missed it.” He added that he wished the minister had been taken away in hearse rather than an ambulance.

Sometimes I marvel at the embarrassment of riches we have in this country; no shortage of heros. This week we lost two. One made it fun and fast to write and say what we think. The other made it safe for everyone, regardless of race, to do those things.

–Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

 

(NOTE: After I wrote this, I read Diane McWhorter’s wonderful column on the subject. She does this topic justice in a way few writers could do. McWhorter is the author of the Pulitzer-winning, “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.” Her piece ran on the NYTimes Opinion Page, 10/7/11, and  if you can’t reach it through this link, it is well worth subscribing to the paper. Which–hello?–you should be doing anyway.)

 

 

Oregon Lottery, where the motto is “Sit Tight and Spend it All!”

Times are tough. Everyone is getting more creative about money. But it’s hard to beat the clever strategy hatched by the State of Oregon, which is launching online gambling.

Yup, that’s right.

The Oregon Lottery will soon offer cash prizes and other goodies through its website. Because everyone knows that the best thing to do in a terrible economy is get more people to gamble away the few bucks they have left.

Rumor has it that they’re also partnering with various liquor distributors to create at-home delivery of spirits, so online gamers do not need to leave the house for refreshments.

Oh, wait, I made that up. The state would never do something that irresponsible.

 

 

She was just here a minute ago…

Dear readers — Yes, I am still on sabbatical from the blog, finishing up my book project.

I did come out of my hollow log long enough to write a book review for The Seattle Times:

It’s a difficult time for bookworms. We fear the next generation will have to visit interactive museum exhibits to turn pages of an actual, physical book. (Yes, it’s true our worries tend to recede while we’re waiting for the Kindle to download, but we do worry.) “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” (W.W. Norton, 263 pp., $26.95), by Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, is especially well-timed for our neo-biblio age. Among its many teachings, this book assures us that dramatic change in manuscript-delivery systems need not erode the power of the words…

For the rest of it, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

When potato chips are outlawed, only outlaws will have chips.

The conviction that dangerous things should be regulated for the good of the masses is not new. In this time and place, it mostly takes the form of stern warnings, as on cigarette packs and those signs in bars and near hot tubs that warn pregnant women to back off.

Every few years some lawmaker re-launches the argument that food stamp recipients should have more restrictions on their purchases. The sight of some single mom with a herd of kids handing over her tax-supported food card for bags of chips is a knife to the heart of these politicos. Not one of whom has waited in line to pay $1.79 for a single bell pepper in recent memory.

The idea that junk food should be taxed is the latest buzz. This meets with predictable outrage from people like me who think telling folks  what they can eat is a civil-rights violation. (Yes, the fact that this puts me alongside a lot of right-wing and tea-party morons who hate government troubles me.)

But this notion is not going to disappear, especially with sharp guys like the New York Times writer Mark Bittman is talking it up. This respected  food writer constructs a good case with actual stats: Want to keep health care costs down? Tax the crap out of sugar-laden soda, and boom — billions saved.

He’s right, but wrong.

It would save a pile if we could make it harder for people to eat and drink bad stuff. The flaw in this plan is that the government would be in charge of enforcement. Do I need to list the reasons why that is a lame idea? I thought not.

If we’re serious about this,  the government does have a role: Give tax breaks to companies that retool their factories from soda to–oh, I don’t know–maybe whole wheat crackers in the shape of Coke bottles. Whatever. The lobby for junk food/drink is too strong to allow a meaningful tax to survive the legislative process.

Then make it easier and cheaper for folks to buy healthy food. That’s different than a tax.

Say a portion of my taxes went to a local nonprofit. The agency could oversee fresh food kiosks located all over the place, especially near transit stops. If I can buy a bag of salad greens and a sweet potato when I get off the bus or train, I’m gonna do it. Especially if the prices are reasonable and they take food debit cards.

There’s plenty of expertise out there to help the government get rolling. The smooth network of folks that sell weed and pills at the transit stations in my city have the distribution details all worked out.

Move over cilantro, quinoa is here to stay.

Everywhere I look, it’s the Quinoa Network: All quinoa, all the time.

It’s not that the stuff is shockingly tasty. Even the typically enthusiastic Whole Foods website describes it with qualifiers, such as its “somewhat nutty flavor.” But it’s called the “Mother of All Grains” for its healthful properties and versatile nature.  It works in just about any recipe and it’s hard to ruin when cooking. When The New York Times is pushing quinoa pancakes, you know the stuff is hot.

(An aside: Why does everyone feel that pancakes need to be improved upon? What other dish gives us the chance to have butter, maple syrup and bacon on the same plate without raising eyebrows? Leave the pancakes alone, people.)

Quinoa (say “keen-wah”) is thought of as a grain, although it’s a closer cousin to a tumbleweed or spinach than it is to wheat. It’s usually described as a “pseudo-grain” which is sort of like calling it a cross-dresser.

A mouthful of the stuff is seemingly healthier than a week at a spa.  It’s got essential amino acids and lots of fiber. It’s nutritional pedigree is fabulous.

I wondered how this beloved-by-the-ancient-Incas food happened to take the culinary world by storm in the last year or so.  A gang called the Quinoa Corporation promotes itself as the first to bring quinoa to the US. When was the last time you heard of a company taking credit for bringing a desirable new substance into this country? I mean, besides the drug cartels.

Actually,  research reveals that quinoa is just like those actors who are described in People and US magazines as “overnight” successes.  Quinoa been quietly taking bit parts in the US for more than 20 years–a trade group of  producers formed in the late 1980s. It’s been waiting in the wings for a break, and finally it got the culinary equivalent of a miniseries on HBO, the network that made even President John Adams a hot character.

The food’s popularity is a direct result of the influence of vegetarians and the growing number of gluten-avoiders who have risen up and demanded foods that won’t (a) offend them politically; (b) make them sick and (c) cause dinner guests to gag.

I’ve been wondering…is there anything bad about this dish? The only criticism I could find was that too much quinoa can be bad for people who need to avoid oxalates in food, which can cause or aggravate inflammation among other bad experiences.  But if there is a food or drink out there (besides water) that has less controversy, I can’t name it.

So, hike on over to the store (or the internet) and buy a bag. If you don’t like it, you can always sprinkle it on the sidewalk to create traction during freezing spells. Step over the squirrels eating it and be on your way.

 

 

The moving van, vehicle for personal growth.

I am not as reflective as I pretend to be.  It’s just that I am at my most introspective when moving, and I have packed up and changed addresses at least 40 times in my adult life.

In this latest move, urban-to-suburban, I learned some things about myself. Things beyond the realization that I am now, absolutely, too old to move again.

“Being in the moment” is an impossible goal for a constitutionally worried and self-absorbed person, one who believes that she can keep bad things from happening by paying close attention to detail and examining a situation from all sides, looking carefully for bits of static catastrophe that might cling together and suddenly present an actual problem. But I’ve learned that this same person can, in fact, live in the here-and-now when moving. She can decide in an instant to toss things instead of packing them, as a means of conserving her energy. Even things that will be needed in a few days: balls of heavy twine; paper clips, dimes and pennies; chocolate syrup, twist-ties for the medium trash bags.

Likewise, in-the-moment moments can come while packing books. Finding an old friend, unread for years, is the perfect excuse to sit down and read a few pages.

Other things I realized upon moving into this house:

–I don’t understand the chemistry of natural gas, nor do I grasp the nature of combustion issues around hot-water heaters or dryers in small, unvented rooms. When I carefully crack the windows, I am no better than the ancient pagan who thought boiling a goat would keep the floods away.

—A cheap garden hose is exactly like a cheap shoe.

–A frosted-glass bathroom window, when installed backwards, affords the person outside the house a clear view of the person inside. The person inside, conversely, cannot see out.

–Home Depot would have delighted Kafka, as would appliance warranties.

–Squirrels are the gang members of the animal world. Afraid of nothing, they dare each other to do dangerous things and terrorize innocent bystanders.

–The definition of completely exhausted is when one sees and feels a spider head up her pant leg and instead of stirring herself to shake it off, she wearily slaps it flat against her own skin.

Moving, to me, has always seemed like a tiny death. Even when I wanted to move, which was probably 39 out of the 40 times, there was always a drop of sadness. In both a move and a death, it’s necessary to buck up and make snap decisions. It’s necessary to be nice to a diverse group of people, many of whom I would ignore on a normal day. Every decision costs money. Drapes, casket linings.

Strangers bring offerings of food, friends want to help, and have no idea what would actually be helpful, nor can the moving/bereaved person enlighten them. What do I need? I have no clue. I know it when I see it, though. The friend who showed up and quietly loaded dozens of flattened cartons into her car and took them away might as well have brought me a diamond bracelet.  I could tell she was surprised that I didn’t have any twine to tie them up, but she didn’t say a word.

 

He knows, just ask him.

I still rely on the wise advice of “Sarge” — a law-enforcement type I followed around for a story in the San Diego Reader a few years ago.  (It’s about a very busy bomb and arson squad near San Diego.)

Recently I emailed Sarge and asked how I could make my new tool-belt look older. No one wants to look like a rookie, right?

His response:

“As for how to age a tool belt, just leave it out on your back porch in the rain and sun for a couple of weeks and it will look pretty salty. That’s what fourteen months in and out of the jungles of Southeast Asia did to me and my Battalion of Marines. When we got back to Camp Pendleton we scared every one just from our salty “don’t give a shit” attitudes and appearance.”

Sarge is now “retired”–working for the feds. He knows a little something about everything.

Prince William and Kate, quail eggs, and other thoughts.

Sources close to the Royal Family have already blurted out the news that there will be 16 different kinds of canapes for the reception following the April 29 wedding of Prince William and his Kate.

One of the anticipated treats is quail eggs with celery salt. Now, there’s some confusion about what else will be served with the little treats; some accounts claim goat cheese and caramelized walnuts. But everyone is in agreement on the celery-salt part.

That may not sound like a difficult thing to produce, but considering that an estimated 10,000 total canapes will be served, if you divide by the 16 types, that could mean something like 625 quail-egg items lined up for sprinkling. That’s a lot of celery salt. Enough to give the chef a good case of repetitive-stress injury, even.  If they have worker’s comp in England, we’d like to see the wording on that request-for-benefits form.

(Before you bird-rights people start, uh, flocking here to comment–do not worry–this is not a lot of work for the quail. Some types apparently lay an egg a day. Which is roughly equivalent, in energy expended, to writing half of a blog post. Trust me, this is E-Z.)

Our big attraction to royal doings stems from our amazement at the ways they make simple things more complicated. Even though they can afford to send a score of footmen over the pond to get a planeload of frozen stuffed mushrooms at Costco, keeping them on ice for the return trip and up to the reception, they insist on doing things the hard way. Put out bids for quail eggs, organizing the celery-salt experts. On and on.

Given the furor over invitations to the canape reception, you know there will be someone who finds a way to smuggle a quail egg out in a pocket and get it bronzed. Or, two quail eggs, which could be bronzed and used for book-ends.

Personally, I think canapes would be much more enjoyable if they were made of familiar comfort foods. If  bubble-and-squeak is too common for the Royals (or too difficult to crowd onto a cracker) they could use American comfort foods. A square of meatloaf and a dab of mashed potato on a toast point. Carefully sculpted peanut butter and jelly towers, maybe. Tiny pancakes with bacon bits and a dab of maple syrup.

I’ve stalled long enough. No one wants to say it out loud, but someone has to tell the Queen: No one wants to stand around all dressed up and eat salted eggs. They just don’t.

 

Tiny Book Reviews: Women at war and the men who loved them.

It’s been months since I blanketed readers with lists of obscure and bestselling books of interest.

Consider these for a start:

The best novel set in the civil rights era that I have read (and I’ve read as many as I can get my hands on) is Magic Time by Doug Marlette (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006). I was crushed to discover that the author has since passed away. Marlette wrote a historically accurate novel with nearly perfect pitch. Protagonist Carter Ransom, a newspaper columnist back home in the deep South after years away, is as wounded and honorable as the homeland he revisits.

Burial for a King : Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral and the week that transformed Atlanta and rocked the nation, by Rebecca Burns (Scribner, 2011) is a surprise: Fresh reporting and perspective on a tragedy that is one of the most written-about events in American history. By focusing tightly on the week of King’s funeral, and capturing moments of the extraordinary strength of Coretta Scott King, Burns adds a valuable work to the canon.

With a selfish, spirited heroine of the Scarlett O’Hara variety, The Linen Queen, by Patricia Falvey (Center Street, 2011) is set in a Northern Ireland village during World War II.  There’s a love triangle at the center of this good novel, but the small domestic details of the life of a small-village millworker is the best stuff.

Reading Away,  by Amy Bloom (Random House, 2007) made me realize how many more picaresque novels are about men versus women. And what a shame that is. Bloom is a fabulous writer and her heroine, Lillian Leyb, is brave, foolish and memorable as she arrives in America in 1924. When Lillian learns the infant daughter she left for dead after a pogrom is alive, she vows to return to Russia and find the child.  The characters who help and hinder her are brilliantly drawn. Bloom employs a very finely wrought back-and-forth-in-time style that every fiction writer should study.

The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead Books, 2010) has a Sophie’s Choice quality–a painful war story with a fierce female survivor at its center; unfolding events from which we cannot avert our eyes, and which stay lodged in the brain for weeks. Set first in the Korean War era, it seems especially poignant to read of such spoils of war today, with US military involvement on more than one front. Chang-rae Lee is already established as a powerhouse and this book keeps that reputation intact.

If you, like me, missed the coda to Armisted Maupin’s wonderful Tales of the City characters, don’t wait any longer. Go get Michael Tolliver Lives, (HarperCollins, 2007) and remember what it was that made the Maupin novels so engrossing the first time around. Almost 20 years after Maupin brought gay, lesbian and transgender characters to the mainstream, he revisits the veterans of those distant days. This isn’t just a book for nostalgic old farts; if  the whole series is new to you, start at the beginning with Tales of the City.

(Note: The links to these books are from Powell’s, Portland’s famous independent bookstore, arguably the best in the country. Sometimes a link disappears when the particular copy I’ve bookmarked is a used one that has been sold. If you get a “not found” message, simply search for the title again on the Powell’s home page. They never run out of books.)

 

 

 

Join me in a toast…as I raise my doughnut.

I got some good news today. It called for a celebratory moment, so I opted for a doughnut.

Some folks hoist a glass to mark an occasion. I like my rituals chocolate-frosted and not likely to lead to any test in which I must blow into a tube at the police station.

Once upon a time I would have headed for Dunkin’ Donuts, but in Portland, Oregon, that just is not the done thing.

Here one goes to a real bakery. I did not want to make do with some gluten-free, high-fiber nonsense in the shape of a doughnut, so I opted for the Helen Bernhard Bakery. All you need to know to verify the veracity of this place is that the counter and baking staff, all Women of a Certain Age, wear white uniforms. Any baker there would sooner cut off an arm than show up without a hairnet.

I got my chocolate-frosted cake doughnut, brought it home, and I cut it up with a knife to make it last. I placed it on an attractive plate.

I lifted it in a toast: “Good times!” Down the hatch.

All this brings to mind my short list of things that make bakeries so wonderful:

1. No ingredient list is ever posted with calories or fat grams.

2. Customers do not help themselves. (Laypeople do not know how to properly use those little sheets of bakery paper or tongs. Only trained professionals should get near those tools.)

3. No one ever asks, “Do you want a bag?” And in fact, any order with more than four cookies goes into a cardboard box. Tied up with string. (See No. 2; string is another thing that the customers should not handle.) This is an especially pleasing moment now that so many stores act as if handing over a paper bag is like skinning a bunny.

4. The names of the products are accurate. When they say “butter-cream frosting,” you know exactly what you’re in for.

5. No one gets surly while waiting in line.

 

File this under: “Better not to know.”

You might not be aware of this, but if you get one of those scope things done that sends a long hose and camera into your house’s sewer pipe, the resolution is good enough to see actual spiders. Big ones.

Photo courtesy of "SewerVision," winners of the Imaginative Name Contest

And the fervent assurances from the sewer guy  (“They LOVE the dark! They NEVER come up!) are probably not really true.

Oh, and they give you a DVD of it to keep, just in case your cable goes out some night and you don’t feel like reading.

The war in utero.

Who knew? It turns out that Washington state law forbids the paying of surrogate mothers. I learned this today by reading a piece in The Seattle Times about efforts to change that law.

Funny, isn’t it, how so many people spend energy keeping tabs on womb traffic, but fall down on the job when it comes to reproductive choices and health?

–From the minute abortion became legal, the fight was on to turn back the clock.

–When a vaccine became available for the sexually transmitted HPV virus that can cause cancer, some factions argued that it would encourage promiscuity. (I guess the day Viagra hit the market those sex police were off attending a workshop on clinic-bombing techniques.)

–Big HMOs and many private docs alike do not routinely offer women screening for sexually transmitted diseases. The subject may not come up at all in an annual physical, and not even in a medical visit intended to address some other gynecological issue.

The bill proposed in Washington is not a bad one. There are many reasons to worry about hiring women to bear children, especially the potential for exploitation. NOW and other women’s rights groups say this law will protect surrogates, which of course is a good thing.

But underneath the legal debate, I believe, lurks our society’s ambivalence about giving women full and private control of their reproductive abilities.

 

 

Food of our fathers.

Growing up, whenever we had odd leftovers for breakfast–which was often–my father brushed aside any questions about the fitness of such things.

“Apple pie? The Pilgrims ate apple pie,” he’d say.”It’s fine.”

Childhood imprints us with many traits, and this defensiveness about food is still with me.

My husband has been known to observe that while I certainly recognize good food, I may not actually know bad food when I see it.

Even though I believe the nutritional wisdom promoting fiber, fruit and lean protein, I can’t shake the familial facts: I come from a long line of people who ate horrible food and lived a long time.

(There are glaring exceptions, but those who checked out early usually did so in some spectacular accident, so they don’t count.)

Apparently this is more common than I thought.

My Southern maternal roots grew in Crisco, Coca-Cola, Moonpies, very well-done beef and fried chicken. A bit of pork rind floated in any vegetables that made it to the table.

My refrigerator today is filled with green stuff I didn’t even know existed when I was a kid.

Now and then as I stare into its interior, wishing vaguely for something with actual sugar, fat and preservatives, I feel guilty that I have strayed so far from my ancestral traditions.

A Pilgrim would starve around here.


Banks vs. robbers-with-guns. And the difference is what?

Big banks: When did they officially trade customer service for big, fat lies?

This remarkable New York Times story by Gretchen Morgenson focuses on the absurd, seven-year battle by one beleaguered mortgage holder, but here’s the important part:

“The whole episode makes you wonder, yet again, how many of the millions of foreclosures in recent years might have been based on questionable accounting or improper practices by loan servicers.”

The bigger the bank, the bolder the perjury.

Well, I guess he passed the test.

Overheard in Emergency Room of a Portland hospital:

NURSE (speaking to ailing, elderly man): “Sir, can you tell me what day of the week it is?

MAN: “Thursday!”

NURSE: (nodding) “OK, now can you tell me who the President is?

MAN: “That black guy.”

I’m not sure if he got points for that answer or not.