Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Princess and the Valley

There's something about being from someplace distinctive but also a bit obscure that makes a person sit up and take notice when that place gets mentioned in the news, or shows up in a film, or provides background for a literary work.

This is exactly what happened to me when I first read Frank Norris's novel, McTeague, in a graduate course on literary naturalism. I eventually wrote my master's thesis on the topic, intrigued as I was by the really bad use of science in some of these novels. McTeague, in fact, was grounded in a notion of "degeneration," popular in the late nineteenth century as an explanation for the human propensity for beastliness toward one another. The idea had penetrated politics so thoroughly by the second world war that the Nazis used it to justify all manner of their own beastliness toward their fellow human beings.

All that aside, however, a passage in Norris's novel brought me up short when I read it some twenty five years ago, and I remember being puzzled by it:

Near a place called Queen's the train reentered California, and McTeague observed with relief that the line of track which had hitherto held westward curved sharply to the south again . . . . At length the mountains began again, rising up on either side of the track; vast, naked hills of white sand and red rock, spotted with blue shadows. Here and there a patch of green was spread like a gay table-cloth over the sand. All at once Mount Whitney leaped over the horizon. Independence was reached and passed; the freight, nearly emptied now, and much shortened, rolled along the shores of Owen Lake. At a place called Keeler it stopped definitely. It was the terminus of the road.

Now, anyone who's ever driven south from Laws or from Bishop in the Owens Valley knows that because Mt. Whitney is on a bee-line west of Lone Pine, the mountain itself doesn't become visible until just before you get into town--not before Independence, which is a good fifteen miles north (not to mention the fact that there's no real horizon). I wondered about this when I read the book, and even made a couple of marginal notes: "Independence comes before Whitney" and "Maybe it looks different from the train--on the eastern side of the valley." I kept meaning to check this out, and even asked my grandmother about it once, but by the time I was in a position to check it out, I'd forgotten about the passage.

Recently, however, my Uncle Art, the family patriarch, sent me some articles that my father and grandmother had written for the California quarterly, The Album (devoted to Inyo and Mono County history) back in the '90s. In one story, "Riding the Slim Princess" (October 1991), my grandmother describes her family's trip from Nevada to California in 1901 on the narrow gauge railway that crossed the mountains. It made me go back to the book for the passage, and realize that Norris wasn't very good at details like this anyway (he also mistakes "Queen's" for the depot at Queen). My grandmother's description was not only more precise, but also a great deal more pleasant to read. Her view of humanity was considerably more generous than Frank Norris's.

I've brought Norris up before in an earlier post on my great grandfather's stagecoach enterprise, but my grandmother's account provided some new information--such why they had decided to leave the isolated Big Smoky Valley for more "civilized" digs. Other family members had already settled in Big Pine, and my great grandmother wanted to make sure her children were properly educated. Despite having to leave her puppy behind, "Baby Clara" evidently thought that one good thing about the move would be that they wouldn't have to travel miles in a buggy just to see friends.

The family embarked at Sodaville (now mostly a ghost town) and followed a route which now roughly coincides with Nevada Highway 360 (feeding into US Highway 6 into California). They got off the train for good (except for a return to Nevada for a couple of years when my grandmother was still quite young) at Alvord station, the name of which was later changed to Zurich. Traces of these old depots (such as Kearsarge and Aberdeen) can still be seen along the route further south (the line ended in Keeler, on Owens Lake--not "Owen Lake" as Norris called it). Beloved Spouse and I spent an afternoon along the old railway bed the last time we were in the Valley, and got this picture of the terrain below the Reward mine:

I even came home with an old square nail that had been used to secure the track to the ties.

Little did my grandmother know when she made that exciting trip to her new home that she'd end up having children, grand children, and great grandchildren who developed a deep and abiding love for the place. Every time I think about getting out of town, as I did recently in another post, the first place I think of is the Valley. When I decided to write a utopian novel based on William Morris's, the only location I considered was the Valley. And now when far-flung family members get together for funerals and Labor Day celebrations, we convene at one of the old family homes in Big Pine. I miss being there this year, but long to make it out soon. I only wish I could take the train.

Photos: A photo attributed to Fred Hurst on the Owens Valley History pages; a map of part of the Carson and Colorado railroad route out of Nevada; my grandmother, "Baby Clara," about two years before she made the trip to California; barrel cactus on the Manzanar-Reward road, alongside the C&C rail bed.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Taking Care of the Roots

I just read Pico Iyer's short essay in Orion, "The Inner Climate," about global warming, and the necessity to gauge our internal temperature as well as that of the local climate. This was an especially timely happenstance, because the weather's started warming up again and my snarkiness level is going up with the temperature.

Iyer's thesis revolves around the notion that in order for us to effect change in the physical environment, we have to make some changes in the philosophical climate:

Action without reflection is what got us into this mess in the first place, and the only answer is not action, but, first, clearer reflection.

As I look around, at the superficial evidence of change (I can, for example, see my blue recycling trash bin from where I type), there seems to be a great deal of it going on. I could--and may still do--post on what my town is touting in the way of "green living," what with its McKinney Green Building, its model elementary schools, its "green" Walmart, and its snappy new logo ("McKinney--Unique By Nature").

But it's clearly external. I can't imagine for a minute that most of the neighbors who use their blue bins are doing it out of any deep philosophical understanding of what human beings have wrought. Many are using them because their kids are urging them to, or because it's kind of trendy (like buying organic produce--at least until the price makes a dent in the fashion budget). A couple of houses have been ticketed for using their blue bins as extra trash bins (the bigger green ones). Some houses--smaller than ours, with only two or three people living in them--have two green bins they fill up weekly (we used to put ours out twice a month; now it's down to maybe once because we can now recycle most of our waste). The only way they'll really begin to stop buying over-packaged merchandise and throwing all that stuff away is if it starts hurting them in the pocketbook. Capitalism has done this to us: consume more and more to help the economy. But put the packaging in the recycle bin whenever possible.

If the oil companies weren't rolling in their profits, and bitching about new drilling sites (when they're not drilling the places they've already got access to), I'd be happy that gas prices are hovering around $4 per gallon. It's got me to increase my mileage by about 4 mpg (simply by slowing down to 60 and using cruise control whenever possible) and combine necessary shopping with trips to and from work. High gas prices may actually encourage the city of Allen to rethink its participation in the local rapid transit consortium, which would mean that we'd hop on that bandwagon, too (Allen is the next town south, and without its participation, McKinney can't get train service this far north).

But that's just it. As a nation we are reluctant to do anything simply because it's the right thing to do; we've clogged our ears with iPod buds, turned on the TV, the computer, the video game, and tuned out reflection. Thinking makes us uncomfortable, so we don't do it. Until this aspect of our collective experience changes, efforts to do anything substantial to save the planet or to prevent political catastrophe will continue to be cosmetic and, in the end, they won't work.

We need what Tom Kuhn would call a paradigm shift. And maybe, if things get bad enough, the evidence in favor of a philosophical shift--from rampant consumerism to responsible stewardship; from rabid partisanship to true community--might tip us over the edge. We might reconsider our position as Lords of the Earth and begin to see ourselves as just one species, one political entity, among many, but with power that requires vigilant reflection to wield properly.

Take care of the roots, says Iyer, and the flowers will take care of themselves.

Photo credit: "Bluebonnets and Fence" by Observer12 on Wikimedia Commons. I loved the juxtaposition of the state flower with the barbed wire--it says a great deal about Texas.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Mrs. Rudkin's Cookbook

One of the problems with having multiple blogs, even when they're focused on different topics, is that sometimes I'm not sure where to post something. This conundrum arose yesterday when I came across a wonderful book about which I wanted to make note--but couldn't choose the proper venue. This morning I decided to post it on both. This sounds a bit lazy, but since it's the product of a serendipitous occurrence and about the idea of home and place, maybe the idea isn't as silly as it seems even as I write.

The book in question is The Margaret Rudkin Pepperidge Farm Cookbook, illustrated by Erik Blegvad, and published by Atheneum in 1963. I found it in the "nostalgia" section of Half Price Books yesterday, where I'd gone to drown my sorrows after hearing about the resignation of a friend and colleague--the second in as many months--which left me feeling more than a little bereft. Beloved Spouse and I were on our way out when I noticed the rather Edward Gorey-ish spine of a book which, on first glance seemed to be another corporate promotional endeavor (some of which, like the Spice Islands Cookbook, also published in 1963, can be quite good)--but with amusing and well-crafted pictures scattered throughout. The dust jacket was missing, so what attracted me were the un-augmented images on the front (above) and back (below) covers.

Now, I'm as big a sucker for good illustration as I am for good cookbooks, so I said to myself, "What the hell; it's only ten bucks" and added it to my small pile of goodies.

When I got home, I started leafing through the book and discovered a treasure: a compendium of healthful recipes developed by the woman who had founded Pepperidge Farm (named for her own family's farm in Connecticut) and ended up serving on the board of Campbell Soup after she sold her company to them in 1961. In 2007, Fortune Magazine named her one of the century's fifty most powerful women. (Copies of the cookbook can be had from online used-book outlets like alibris for less than what I paid, but some may be the 1992 edition).

Margaret Fogarty Rudkin was born the same year as my Grandma Clarice, 1897, in New York. In 1937, when her son developed allergies that his doctor said could be addressed by feeding him bread made from whole grains, she began a journey that eventually led to the cookbook. 1963, when Rudkin published it, was the year after I returned from Taiwan and during which I lived with my grandmother, so the coincidence adds to my delight in finding the book when I did.

The illustrator, Erik Blegvad, is actually no stranger to my family. One of my children's favorite books growing up was Judith Viorst's The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (which I highly recommend to families for helping them deal with the death of a pet)--illustrated by none other than Mr. Blegvad.

During my recently aborted attempt to improve my typographic skills (I had to drop the class because midterm madness caught up with me), I had run across another book by Blegvad that's probably worth looking for: Types Best Remembered/Types Best Forgotten, published by Parsimony Press in 1994. But the cheapest edition I could find through alibris is $69. Guess I'll wait on that one.

At any rate, owning Rudkin's cookbook is really like having several books in one, because each chapter focuses on an entirely different topic: Childhood, Country Life, Pepperidge Farm, Cooking from Antique Cookbooks, and Ireland. Each features a chatty and informative introduction, and the "antique cookbooks" chapter offers modern versions of such goodies as a fifteenth-century pumpkin pie, although the original carries this warning: "Cassius, who was bothered by colic and stones, did not eat this. It is difficult to digest and nourishes badly." Rudkin's version is much more palatable (perhaps because she doesn't put in a half pound of sow's belly), and simple to make:

Preheat oven to 450.

Ingredients: (Plain pastry for a 9 inch single-crust pie.) 1.5 cups canned pumpkin, 2/3 cup brown sugar, 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. ginger, 1/2 tsp. salt, 2 eggs, 1 c. milk, 1 c. cream.

Method: Line a 9-inch pie pan with pastry, making a high edge. Brush the pastry all over with egg white. Place in the refrigerator while preparing the filling. Mix together the pumpkin and the spices. Sift the brown sugar into the pumpkin and mix well. Beat the eggs and add them. The add the milk and cream and mix well.
Pull out the shelf of the oven, set the prepared pie pan on the shelf and carefully pour the filling into the crust. Don't pour all onto one spot., but take a cupful at a time and spread the filling around to avoid breaking the crust. Filling the crust this way avoids spilling.

Bake at 450 F for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and bake 45 minutes more until the custard is set.

The idea of simple food, lovingly prepared is always welcome, but I think we can especially appreciate it in times when folks no longer eat together all that often, and when grandmothers and their grandchildren can be separated by continents. My memories of times in my grandmother's kitchen come flooding back when I find a book like this, grounded in a similar view of the world and a similar notion of nurturing. My fondest wish is that more people come back to the practice of spending time cooking together as gas gets more expensive and makes folks less likely to run out to the Olive Garden for a family meal. There is absolutely nothing like a home-made pumpkin pie to make us feel secure and comfy--and nothing like a well-illustrated, well-written cookbook to help us recall the relationship between food and home.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Getting Out of Town

I've been doing a great deal of whining lately, and probably what I need to do is just get away for a bit. Only that's a lot easier said than done around here.

Almost wherever I lived as a child, "out of town" was anywhere from a couple of hundred yards to a short drive away. In Cottonwood, the first real home I remember--even though it was my grandparents' and not my parents'--we were already out of town. In fact, the nearest real town (where I was born) was several miles up the road. Our house was next to the L. A. Aqueduct, but outside the compound of houses in which the power-plant workers lived, there was wilderness. Desert, to be more exact, on the verge of mountains (Sierras), with broad vistas across the Owens Lake and the Inyos beyond. Only a couple of ridges away lay Death Valley. We actually had to be on the lookout for mountain lions and snakes, and had to be careful not to fall into the aqueduct if we didn't want to get to the San Fernando Valley the hard way. The aqueduct is one reason why the land was so empty then; mining operations around the turn of the century had built settlements on the lake, like Keeler pictured below, which are now ghost towns or nearly so. The end of profitable mining and the drying of the river coincided to wreak economic devastation on the inhabitants.

After my grandfather died and my grandmother moved to Lone Pine, she lived on the east side of town, only a block away from more desert, this time closer to the Inyos than the Sierras. But if I wanted to be by myself or just go for a walk, all I had to do was get over a barbed wire fence and I was beyond the pale. Often, my grandmother and I would hop in her old Chevy and go for a ride in the Alabama Hills, a primeval landscape of weathered granite boulders now popular as a venue for space opera movies and SUV commercials. A few folks live up in there, but mostly it's open land. I took Beloved Spouse there for a ride the last time we were in Lone Pine, and we found a decomposing cow carcass. Some poor bovine got through a fence and couldn't get back, so she got stuck and died.

In Taiwan, after my parents moved us to Yang Ming Shan (most of which is now a national park), each of the three different houses we lived in over three years was within yards of a trail into the mountains. I often went out hiking alone (a true free-range child, I think), on one of the trails, or across the endless rice paddies that stepped up each hill. I'm pretty sure folks knew where I was most of the time, due to an active local grapevine, but I felt free and powerful and on my own. At the time I was reading through Enid Blyton's repertoire of stories about children caught up in adventures with pirates and smugglers, and I was pretty sure this was as close as I would get.

Nowadays, if I want to get away, I can still drive a bit north and east, but that's the only possible direction. As Dallas inexorably sprawls northward, it's bleeding through Richardson and Plano and Allen, and what little open space separates us is rapidly being filled in by new housing developments and shopping malls. I'm not altogether unhappy about one of these, because it's going to mean a bookstore (albeit a Borders; in a town of 150,000 we only have two others--Half Price Books and a single antique book seller on the Square in downtown McKinney) and a Whole Foods Market. But it also means that all the open land that made this place tolerable thirty years ago (when we used to take the kids out on Sunday drives in the country, and when their Montessori school was located on an acre out in the middle of nowhere) is nearly gone. Leaving me with, quite literally, nowhere to go. I'm just not willing to spend the gas and enlarge my footprint that much just for a short-lived jaunt down a country lane and a depressing ride back to reality.

This has probably sparked my willingness to let part of my property go wild, and let it become whatever it wants. If I can't get to the country, a few trees and some wild plants bring it to me. This will have to do for now, I suppose, although we both fantasize about open ranchland in Paraguay after seeing an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, or a trip into the mountains after watching Sunrise Earth and seeing moose in the middle of a Teton lake.

What still amazes me is my memory of flying west to Olympia last year for my Aunt and Uncle's fiftieth wedding anniversary party. I fly reluctantly, not really believing in aerodynamic theory, and am pretty white-knuckled for the entire trip. But I was glued to the window, watching mile after mile of open space drift by beneath me. There's still lots of sparsely occupied property in this country, and an abundance of uninhabited land. If you don't believe me, spend a few hours on Google Earth, traveling west on a line from Dallas to Seattle. One reason that there's anything left is, of course, due to a general scarcity of water. But those of us who love the desert would be happy with a trickle of stream and an expanse of openness. It puts things into perspective in a way nothing but a trip into space or a sailboat in open ocean can quite replicate.

We are, after all, only a speck--a mote, as they say, in the eye of God. Our sheer numbers and proximity to one another help convince us of an importance that's really only transitory and ephemeral. We're powerful enough to mess things up pretty well, but probably not powerful enough to do everything in. The earth does abide--as we could see much better if we could only get the hell out of Dodge once in a while and spend some uncivilized time in some of that open space.

Photos: A road in the Owens Valley, near Big Pine and Uhlmeyer Spring, taken in 2006; two photos from Aquafornia's Flickr photostream of the LA aqueduct: the old Pittsburgh Plate Glass factory on Owens Lake, where my father once worked, and a picture of the aqueduct intake from whence the Owens River water gets sent south to the Haiwee Reservoir; the Alabama Hills by Daniel Mayer, via Wikimedia Commons; an old photo of Keeler, California, from an unknown source; a WikiTravel shot of Yang Ming Shan, up the road from where we lived.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Summer Daze

Were there some rain in the forecast, I could probably break out of the dog days a bit more easily. Rain has a way of freshening things, even if it provides only a brief respite from heat and usually means a rise in humidity. Earlier in the week, when I saw tropical depression/storm Edouard forming in the gulf and heading into the Houston area and tracking north, I was somewhat optimistic. A small storm can bring relief without much damage, but we only got a couple days' worth of cloud cover from it. The temperature did get low enough (mid-90s) to keep me from turning on the A/C for the duration; today, however, things are back to normal, and the animals are draped all over the house like limp fur rugs.

Even last night's spectacular opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics offered only an evening's worth of distraction. But they were cool in the metaphorical sense--though clearly not in the literal sense. Leave it to Zhang Yimou to put on the most spectacular of events and to combine tradition and state-of-the-art technology to dazzle us and bring a tear of gratitude to the eye of someone who still hasn't shed the spell of things Chinese.

I had, in fact, only a day earlier, ploitered (there's that lovely word again) away a morning by looking at northern Taiwan on Google Earth, trying to figure out where I had lived as a youngster. I'm getting closer, I think, although it's probably a fruitless search, given the forty-five years that have passed since I left. But it's fun, and every time I try it, the images are better. As much as I want us to start doing a better job of evaluating our technologies before we adopt them, I can't help but be amazed by what we've learned to do in the past half century--including the incredible electronic scroll that rolled out in the middle of the Bird's Nest stadium last night.

Here at home about the only beings who seem to be enjoying my back yard these days are the birds. I'm trying to be really conscientious about filling up the watering holes for them, and there are, at this moment, several flocks hopping around on the lawn looking for bugs in the grass (which is still a bit damp from having been watered last night), and a few individuals bathing themselves energetically outside my window. If I were slightly more energetic, I'd head to Target to see if I could find an inflatable kiddie pool on sale for a few bucks, fill it up, and go join them.

But I'm too lazy even to do that. The most physical thing I can manage this afternoon is moving my fingers across the keyboard. I'm still working on assessment strategies for my classes, and trying to strike a balance between satisfying the administration and sticking to my philosophical guns about what education's all about. It astounds me that with all my experience and training, and my love of my subject matter and my students, and my assurance from those who contact me years down the line to tell me that yes, I have in fact enriched their lives--that somehow it's not enough. I have to produce numbers, because quantification is now everything.

It's fortunate that my particular institution recognizes this tension and tries to help us negotiate the obstacle course laid out by the all-powerful accreditation machine, but all of our effort is really directed toward making it easier for outsiders to understand what we're doing. They can't come in and spend a couple of weeks actually attending classes, talking to instructors and students within the learning context, and discussing how we construct our classes, how we evaluate our students, what we are trying to accomplish, and how to do a better job when they find things lacking. They want grids and charts and rubrics. They trust not, because they believe only in the myth of objectivity, and not in the reality of meaning. And education is all about meaning.

And so I plod. Instead of spending the time augmenting my knowledge about my field and learning new things to pass on to my students, or discovering new ideas about what the past meant to those who lived it, I labor to translate what I do into something measurable.

Oh, to hell with it. I'm going to ice up a pitcher of tea, take a book, and go out and join the birds in the shade, under a tree. That's the way to spend a summer day.

Image Credit: Another Cézanne translation, this time into an Art Nouveau version, from the summer of 2006, by Kevin O'Flaherty.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Walking in Place

Perhaps it's simply the season--the lethargy and inertia that emerges in the heat of summer--or maybe it's the specter of change in the work environment that shadows my teaching life these days, but I can't seem to get much done today. To paraphrase (badly) Bob Dylan, I ain't goin' nowhere.

In the first place, it's getting hot. In a house without central air conditioning, temperatures over 100 can be debilitating--even when some of the rooms have window units that keep them cool enough. These days we're only using two rooms--the bedroom and the study. We'd probably leave the bedroom out of the equation, except at night, but we have an old cat (18 years) who doesn't like to come downstairs. The other three feline members of the family occupy open window sills and the grate where an old heating unit used to be housed, but which is now simply open to the space under the house. The attic fans pull cool air up through it, and at least one cat can be found lounging on it all day. The dogs stay in the study where we do most of our work, and which is curtained off with a portière from the rest of the house so they can still run out and bark at the mail carrier and any passing dogs or baby strollers that have the effrontery to use the sidewalk in front. I've jacked the thermostat on the units up to 83, which is quite comfortable, but it's really hard to get any work done in any other part of the house.

The summer quarter is in full swing, and my students are, so far, engaging and hard-working; but the department in which I teach is bereft of a director at the moment, and the search for a new one entails a certain amount of angst among the affected faculty. Because ours is a proprietary school, run by a corporation interested in its profit margin, we tremble at the notion of being saddled with martinet fixated on assessment and student retention, rather than on the problems of teaching the liberal arts in an institution that tries hard not to be seen as a trade school, but is still ambivalent about the necessity of what we do. While all this is going on, I'm spending most of my non-teaching time revising lectures to make them more visually exciting in order to combat student prejudices against history courses. The past just isn't immediately relevant to these guys, so I have to show them how cool it all really is--in 100 images or fewer per week.

But even the rather pleasurable task of finding some new images for my upcoming Vienna Secession/Art Nouveau lecture hasn't been enough to stave off entropy, and I was busy procrastinating this morning (by playing with my new printer/scanner, reading today's New York Times online, and sorting through my image library). In the Times I ran into a review of Ammon Shea's new book, Reading the OED--about reading through the entire Oxford English Dictionary. Since noodling through my compact edition of the OED is one of my favorite ways to ploiter ("work to little purpose"--a word mentioned in Nicholson Baker's article), I enjoyed both reading the review and checking out Shea's minimalist web page.

Later, while revisiting my image library (which is, as it turns out, enormous--about 5000 strong), I ran across the results of a workshop my students used to do at midterm. Before, that is, the assessment regime caught up with me and I had to start administering exams to gauge their progress on course objectives. At any rate, the assigned task involved setting up a still life patterned after an impressionist or post-impressionist painting, taking a digital photograph of the results, and then manipulating the photo back into an image in the style of a nineteenth-century art movement. It was always fun, and the results were often brilliant; and now I'm thinking of making it a segment of the exam.

The still-lifes were usually patterned on works by Paul Cézanne or Vincent van Gogh, and usually involved plates of fruit, pitchers or glasses, and table cloths. But at one point I brought in my hiking boots and a copy of van Gogh's painting of his shoes--made philosophically notorious by Martin Heidegger's essay, The Origin of the Work of Art. I've used some of the results to illustrate this post--and included Wikipedia's image of the painting here for comparison.

Just this week I have been newly amazed with the creativity our students muster, especially in light of tight deadlines, heavy work-loads, and an accelerated program. While sitting in on a colleague's course in Conceptual Typography, I have spent the last three weeks (four hours per week) trying to keep up with these kids, and not doing a very good job of it. The software is difficult for an old fart (Adobe Illustrator and In Design, neither of which I had even opened before the course began), the assignments are challenging (although rather fun), and the students' solutions are always far more creative and energetic than mine are. Still, I can see how what I'm trying to teach them can help them to ground their creativity and perhaps make some new connections.

So now, having completed my ploitering for the day, I'm inspired to get back to work on the lecture. At least until the sun hits the west windows and I'm forced to close the shades and retire from the heat with a cold beer in front of the A/C.

Image credits: Midterm workshop in History of Art and Design II, Summer 2006: Amy Saunders, Brent Hollon, Lucy Miron, [Vincent van Gogh], and Tiffany Obenhaus. Click on the images for larger views that show them off quite a bit better than the thumbnails do.