Thursday, December 24, 2009

Skywatch Friday: In the Bleak Midwinter?

It's Winter Solstice week here in the Northern Hemisphere of Planet Earth.

In North Texas, however, there have been few signs of winter, except for today's promise of a white Christmas. My Skywatch Friday sequence focuses on the old saw, heard repeatedly among oldtimers in this neck of the woods: If y'all don't like Texas weather, wait a minute; it'll change.

On the eve of the solstice I took the shots that open the post: pretty white clouds, contrails deformed by high winds aloft, and moderate temperatures.

On the actual Solstice, I tried to capture the sunrise, but gave up because it was too hard to get between the power lines across the street, and it wasn't all that spectacular anyway. I did record the morning sun on the bare tree trunks, and later got the evening sun doing the same thing, from a different direction. The first photo was taken facing north; the second facing east.

On the 22nd, change was in the forecast, and the first of two fronts began to move in. Darker clouds formed to the west, although the weather remained unseasonably balmy for another full day. (Folks were walking their dogs yesterday afternoon, wearing shorts. The folks; not the dogs). We even got a bit of color in the evening.

Last night the harbinger of the Big Storm (we get very excited about weather around here) came through, and as we drifted off to sleep we heard claps of thunder to the north. Morning dawned misty and dreary, but still not terribly cold. The temperature dropped quickly, however, and now at 2 pm CST it's 2C and snowing.

Nothing is sticking, but if the temperature plunges much more it will, and we'll have snow for the "puppies" (our dogs and my daughter's behemoth) to play in Christmas morning. If you squint (or enlarge the photo), you can see some flakes against the tree trunk below. This is actually our second snow since the beginning of Fall, but this one promises to stay around a bit longer if it actually keeps falling for a while.

To all visiting Skywatchers who celebrate it, have a happy Christmas. And in case I'm too busy grumbling about something next week to post celebratory photos, have a good New Year as well.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Thanksgiving in Deep Ellum

As usual for this time of the year, I'm immersed in a flood of exams and projects to grade, so I have to fall back on earlier photos if I want to post this week.

I mentioned in the Cabinet that we spent Thanksgiving with Little Owl and some of her friends, and her enormous mutt, Homer.

They live in a converted cotton gin, in an historic part of Dallas near the lower part of Elm Street, commonly known as "Deep Ellum." The loft is huge and, of course, since Little Owl has a BFA in interior design, spiffily decked out. It also has a grand view that takes in both Fair Park (hence the flagpoles in the first shot) and downtown.

When I noticed that a sunset was happening, I grabbed the Nikon and got the shots included here. I've lately become interested in the juxtaposition of technology and nature in photos, and these are good examples of how nature manages both to manifest itself and visually conquer all of the industrial detritus we've thrown up against the sky.

These aren't the kind of pictures I like to post, but they represent the inescapable reality of urban living. And, quite frankly, I think they're a good deal more honest than the sentimental sunsets in suburbia I usually contribute.

Happy Skywatch Friday, folks. I'll try to get some Solstice pictures on Monday for next week's entry.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Skywatch Friday: If on a Winter's Evening

Last weekend I bought Sting's lovely new(ish) album, If on a Winter's Night, filled with atypical tunes for the season. I played it Wednesday, and that evening caught a terrific sunset after a few rather bleak days. Of course, it's not quite winter, according to the calendar, but by my reckoning, the so-called "first day of winter" (the Solstice) should really be called Midwinter's day, since it marks sun-return, and growing amounts of daylight henceforth.

Whether or not it's officially winter, it feels like it. It's so cold everything's dead, the water in the metate is frozen, and birds are having at the pyracantha. But if we keep getting sunsets like this, I'll stay content.

The first shot is directly out the back. The second (below) shows the remains of a contrail, suffused with pink light.

Hope everyone's Skywatch Friday is as lovely--and thanks again to our ineffable team.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Gift

This season really brings out the bah-humbuggish curmugeon in me, primarily because of all the noise emitted from the television, the sound systems in stores, and the consummate waste generated in the newspapers by all the advertising.

The older I get, the less I like Christmas--and this isn't just because I'm a Jew. I was, after all, raised by a passel of nuns and a more-or-less believing mother. I don't like Hanukkah hype any better, since this once-simple, lovely holiday has become a Christmas clone.

What dominates the modern notion of Christmas is the sheer excess of it all: shoppers camped out overnight on Thanksgiving to snag a bargain at Buy More on "Black Friday"; the incessant, stale, monotonous Christmas carols played endlessly in all public spaces; the wreath-laden SUVs and Hummers in this region; the constant pleas for overindulgence in food, drink, and buying in general. There are reports going around that people are spending less this year because of the economy, but this town doesn't seem to have gotten the word.

I'd much rather celebrate the Solstice, and welcome the sun back, with its promise of longer doses of daylight. I'd much rather have a few people over for good, simple food cooked slowly and lovingly. I'd much much rather sit in front of a fire on a cold morning, snuggled up to Beloved Spouse and/or dogs, with a good cuppa to warm my frigid hands (it never does get above 60F in this house during winter). I'd much rather read a good book than watch another crappy Christmas "special" on the telly.

Apparently I'm not the only one who's getting annoyed by the situation, and especially about what has happened to the idea of a gift.

George Will's column for November 26 hit the old mole on the nose: The Gift of Not Giving, in which he reviews a book by Joel Waldfogel called Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays. The bottom line here is that we do such a bad job of choosing gifts for people that it's actually bad for the economy and bad for our relationships as well because the process generates both ill will and a net loss in value. We'd apparently be better off simply spending the money on ourselves.

The most disappointing thing about the season these days is the way gift-giving has deteriorated into filling a list of demands or bad ideas about who might want what. In Judith Martin's Miss Manners column last Saturday, one writer mentioned the absurdity of having relatives ask for a list of what she wanted for Christmas. Now, I can understand why a parent might ask a child to "write to Santa" so that said parental unit might be able to fulfill a wish or two. But if one is exchanging gifts with friends or relatives, is it too much to ask that they know you well enough to be able to buy a suitable gift?

I once had a mother-in-law who was always spot-on in her gift-giving. But that was because she had tons of money and an equal amount of time to shop the catalogues. She always got me "earth mother" presents, and was equally good at sussing out what other family members would enjoy. I usually tried to make stuff (jam, flavored olive oil, baked goods) because we didn't have much money to spend. Occasionally we'd try something different, like the year we bought old books for everyone (an aged medical text for a doctor, vintage kids' books, that sort of thing), but eventually we ran out of time and ideas.

So we decided to donate what money we had to spend to a charity, settling on Heifer International and presented everyone with Christmas ornaments that matched the animal chosen that year: chicken ornaments the year we gave flocks of chickens, llamas when we chose a llama--this year it's water buffaloes. Miss Manners isn't sure she likes the idea, because the donor gets a tax deduction (good for us--but it's a drop in the bucket), and the recipient might not approve of the charity. But, no, we don't send a check to Planned Parenthood or some such organization that might well annoy the few folk we still give gifts to. Heifer is safe because it can't offend conservatives or liberals; it's actually a great outfit because it does real good and was founded on good Christian values.

Although we still give our children gifts, they share our social values and appreciate gifts that don't exploit the environment or other people. We buy them durable things we know they will enjoy, and we actually enjoy shopping for them. The big difference between now and when they were younger is that, except for the Solstice/Christmas/Hanukkah season, we don't buy for specific occasions. Instead, when we come across something we know they will enjoy, we buy it and give it then. This way everybody gets something out of the experience, and we don't have to endure the holiday crush, cranky children, and stressed out parents in stores.

As Lewis Hyde describes in his wonderful book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (now subtitled Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World), gift-giving among tribal peoples is a cultural exchange of meaning, not of capital: the gift must always move, as Hyde points out. "You may keep your Christmas present, but it ceases to be a gift in the true sense unless you have given something else away."

Ideally, a gift comes from the heart; even better, it comes from the hand: the best gifts I have ever received have been made by hand: warm afghans knitted by my grandmother, a pair of stone bookends made by my grandfather, a scarf my daughter-in-law made for me, a handy carrier for casseroles sewn up by my step-mother, things baked or canned by friends. But many of us can't make much any more, being, as we are, so remote from craft traditions that would once have allowed for the gift of a carved bowl, or a thrown pot.

So the next best thing is to choose carefully. And this is my proposal for future gift giving in my immediate family. Keep up the Heifer donations and the ornaments. But for spouse and children, a single gift chosen for its pleasure value: a bottle of great Scotch, a book, a beautiful object (preferably with a use), a dinner at a good restaurant, a beloved film on Blu-ray.

If more of us did less, we might gain back a little of what gift-giving meant to us as children (as long as we weren't spoiled silly by over-indulgent parents). If I had grandchildren, they'd get hand-made stuffed dragons or Froebel gifts. And they'd be invited into the kitchen to revive a tradition of holiday cookie-baking and decorating.

I really do think that by refusing to buy in excess and buy into over-indulgence we'll actually enable ourselves to enjoy a much more uplifting season--and I just might smile occasionally, and perhaps even shed a bit of my grinchy demeanor.

Image credit: Once again I find that Carl Larsson's wonderful paintings of family life in Sweden at the turn of the nineteenth century evoke some of the qualities missing from modern life. This is Christmas Eve, from 1904, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Squirrels!!

One of my favorite bits in the wonderful animated film, Up! has to do with talking dogs.

These dogs can actually carry on a technologically mediated "conversation"--at least until one of their tiny little brains is distracted by passing vermin. "Squirrel!" is a signal for all talking dogs to forget what they're talking about and attend, if only momentarily, to a passing distraction.

Now, my yard is heavily populated by fuzz-tailed tree rats who seem to have great fun distracting my own dogs. But the other night (the same one mentioned in my previous post) I caught them having fun amongst themselves, running hither and thither through the branches of overhead trees.

The waxing gibbous moon provided a nice backdrop to their antics.

It's now much colder, and even snowed briefly yesterday morning. More snow is in the forecast for tomorrow. Maybe I can catch the little monsters running through the snow for next week.

Happy Skywatch Friday, and thanks once again to our best-beloved team for gathering us all together to share skies.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Home Fires

Friday, after the previous night's lovely Thanksgiving meal at our daughter's loft, we celebrated my night off (I usually teach my Visual Anthropology class from 6-10 pm) by building a fire and enjoying the balmy evening.

I had been out with the camera taking shots of frolicking squirrels (to be posted next Friday for Skywatch) and when the Beloved Spouse came out bearing my evening adult beverage, he suggested that we just enjoy the weather and use up some of the brush pile while we were at it.

This fire pit (the successor to the one our neighbor's tree demolished) has been the centerpiece of several enjoyable moments when the weather's been cool enough. But we don't burn things frequently because as peaceful and primal as they are, wood fires pollute. The only thing that justifies the occasional pit or hearth fire is the fact that we try so hard to reduce our particulate emission elsewhere. In addition, all of the wood we burn comes from this property: mostly fallen pecan branches, but other trees contribute as well.

So we sat sipping wine, and later I brought out a plate of Grandma's dinner rolls, cheese, and apples. Despite the three huge streetlights in the neighborhood, the main illumination came from the waxing gibbous moon, and quite a few stars were visible. They were the usual culprits, but at one point we noticed a star-like object moving across the sky rather quickly. I remembered the satellites my Grandmother and I used to watch from her porch in Lone Pine, and wondered if that's what we were watching. Then it struck me: this was the International Space Station, which a bulletin from Space Weather had noted was going to be visible in our area over the next few days.

After it was gone, I went in to check, and sure enough, according to the Flybys page, we had been treated to something I hadn't seen before, and will be looking forward to spotting more frequently. Too bad we missed the double-flyby when Atlantis was still in the vicinity of the Station. But this was good enough for now. It'll be clear again tonight, so we may get another chance--but the temperature has dropped significantly, and the evening won't exactly be as amenable to sitting out.

I think that what strikes me about noticing tiny details in the sky is the rather poetical connection with our distant ancestors. Hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists all over the world were far more aware of the night sky than we (who can't often even see much of it), and relied on it, surely wondered about it, and were probably quite a bit more amazed by it than folks are in so-called civilized modern times.

Never mind that the object I was watching is a product of our highest levels of technology: it's still a wonder, and it still amazes me. When I can get out where there aren't three gi-normouse mercury vapor street lamps generating another kind of pollution (light), I have a hard time not gazing for hours at the heavens.

The low-tech pleasure of sitting next to a wood fire ties me to our primal past. But I'm also reminded of Jack London's melancholy tale (To Build a Fire) of a man in the wild, realizing the enormous value of fire to human survival. And I can't help but cheer for the dog at the end of the story, who doesn't need the fire and who knows instinctively how to make it through the cold.

As comforted as I was as I sat enjoying the company of my husband and my own dogs, I also knew that the following day I'd be reading about political squabbling and human misery, and would undoubtedly wonder (as I'm doing now) about whether or not we really know any more of real use than we did when we were still few, fragile, and much more mindful of the environment in which we lived.

The fire pit itself points to another irony. We bought it from Smith & Hawken, which was originally focused on craftsmanship and sustainability, but was sold to the Miracle-Gro people a few years back. By then it had gone through several owners and ended up a kind of cartoon version of itself. It's now being closed, which it richly deserves, and so if another tree falls on this one, I guess I'll have to just bang it back into shape and make do. Had I realized that the original owners of the company had urged a boycott after it was acquired by an outfit that espouses chemical pollution on a grand scale, I probably would never have replaced the first one.

Still, there's something unmistakably pleasant and reassuring about enjoying a fire, even when it's burned down to the coals and is getting ready to go out. The warmth abides, and follows us back into the house. I'm pretty sure I sleep better afterwards, too. And there are still a few Sunday-morning fireplace moments to look forward to over the winter--even though we limit those as well.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Autumn Evenings

I haven't been posting much on Skywatch Friday lately, but this single meme has changed the way I look at the sky--and increased exponentially the amount of time I spend paying attention to what's going on above me. I couldn't possibly be more enthusiastic about the team and its efforts--thanks, as always.

A couple of weeks ago, when the weather was rather "interesting" (read nasty and brutish), I looked out my window at a golden evening, with apricot-colored light glowing against a solid background of cloud. The cloud cover persisted for the next twenty four hours, but began to break up just as it started getting dark.

I love the bare branches of trees against the sky anyway, but the changes from evening to evening are worth watching.

The sun broke through enough for a sunset--albeit obscured somewhat by bare pecan trees.

The opening shot reminds me a (very) little of Caspar David Friedrich's paintings evoking the sublime, like this one, Abbey in an Oak Forest:

That's it for now; Thanksgiving breads are in the oven and I've got to keep an eye on them. My daughter's cooking this year, and all I have to do is make the dinner rolls. Talk about sublime!

Images: all shots taken with my Nikon D80 on auto exposure. The Friedrich painting comes from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Back to the Pantry

My brain is getting overcrowded these days: a consequence, I think, of aging. As memories pile up, something has to go, but before we have a chance to sort through it all the jumble catches up and tends to overwhelm us.

The pantry-cleaning effort became an exercise in metaphor as much as tidiness, because it involved making sense of the past: discarding what is no longer necessary to make room for what is still important.

So out went the ten-year old packets of Bird's Custard mix and a tin of sardines of the same vintage (what was I thinking?) among other archaeological finds, and in went a new dog food bin that allows me to close the door for the first time in six years or so. Not that I'd want to, because the whole thing looks so good now that I amuse Beloved Spouse by standing in the little room admiring my work.

I did end up putting cork on the shelves, which required putting a bar tray under stuff like honey and molasses so they can't leak onto the porous surface. I still have to re-cover the upper shelves, but they've been cleaned off and spiffed up, awaiting my next trip to Home Depot. The cork is a bit pricey, but it seems to take the edge off all the angles, and actually quiets the visits to retrieve tinned tomatoes for a sauce.

The plan is to inventory supplies every six months, and to be much more conscious of how long things remain. If I ever get serious about food preservation, I'll now have room for more stores of pickled garden veg, jam, and tomato sauce.

The photos are a bit blurry because I don't have the patience to set up the tripod and didn't want to use a flash. But I'm happy with the way it all turned out. I actually feel less overcome by my things-t0-do list as a result of having accomplished this one small thing, so perhaps it's a harbinger of better days. After all, the Museum of Unfinished Projects has also recently been catalogued (more or less), and I can actually get in there as well, so excavating the study can't be far behind.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Pantry Matters

I have (another) confession to make. I am easily seduced. By chefs, that is, and by chefs on television especially. Occasionally the stars and planets will align properly and the local PBS station will string a number of really good cooking shows on a Saturday afternoon, and I'll pour a glass of wine before 5 pm and sit back and enjoy them. The current lineup includes old Julia Child and Jacques Pepin episodes, and a newer entry, Avec Eric ("We cook, therefore we are"), which I just love. But I also delight in people who simply cook and write about cooking.

By far my favorite foodie is Mark Bittman, whose book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating provided my Saturday morning reading this week. A couple of weeks ago the combination of a bit of extra cash and a 40% off Borders coupon produced two amazing additions to my cookbooks/books-on-cooking library: the Bittman book, and the companion to PBS's Spain: On the Road Again, Spain: A Culinary Road Trip, mostly by Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow--but Bittman and Spanish actress Claudia Bassols were both along for the ride. Beloved Spouse and I enjoyed the show enormously, and I'd wanted the book ever since.

So, snuggled down with the puppies (the BS is in New Haven coaching this weekend), I bit into Food Matters (sorry) and came away--as often happens when I conduct my Sabbath business of reading all morning--inspired.

Nearly ten years ago, when we first looked at this house, two things sold me: the half-acre property with a huge compost bin (useless as it turned out) and a fence full of blackberries (now long gone), and the pantry: a pantry just about the size of the one in my grandmother's kitchen at Cottonwood, where she used to put pies to cool, and which always smelled fabulous. If I ever come across that smell again, I'll undoubtedly swoon with pleasure.

My pantry, alas, doesn't have much of an odor, and if it did, it would probably waft up from the dog food bins. It's also occupied by a large hot water heater (artfully omitted in the photo; it's to the left of what I shot) that takes up way too much space. We had planned to replace the original heater with a tankless job, but the old one died on us last winter and we couldn't afford to wait the two weeks it would take to get the tankless version installed, so we had to simply replace it with a traditional, though more energy efficient, model. Some day we'll donate this one to charity and do the right thing, but for now I have to live with The Hulk.

When we were in the process of bringing the house up to code after we bought it (it had space heaters in every room, some freestanding and some built in), a safer central heating unit had to be installed, and the contractor wanted to put it in the pantry. Good thing for me that there was another alternative--a large closet adjacent to what is now the study--and he tucked it in there. The closet also houses the Beloved Spouse's tennis things, so everybody won out; and I got to keep my pantry.

Over the years, however, the pantry itself has become something of a mess, and it perennially attracts moths, so that anything not completely sealed (such as boxes of cereal or pasta) ends up with extra protein in it. The other problem now is that as I try to reduce the number of processed foods we consume, the tired shelf coverings are beginning to show, and the whole room screams for an overhaul.

What Bittman's book did for me this morning was to add direction to my already-recognized need for reorganization and general spiffing up. Little in the book is really new to me, but his approach is straightforward, no-nonsense, and a bit of a smack upside the head for those of us who preach something and don't always practice it. I do need the occasional kick in the bum to keep me honest, and Food Matters has provided the latest one.

If anyone else needs a nudge, I recommend Jane Goodall's Harvest of Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating as well. Surrounding oneself with inspiring philosophical and practical advice is one way to keep interest and energy focused on a worthwhile project.

For advice on what to put in a pantry, Aglaia Kremezi's beautiful The Mediterranean Pantry can't be beat in terms of recipes for condiments and seasonings, but a more complete list can be found in the pantry section of Clifford Wright's A Mediterranean Feast, my current food bible.

Whilst scooting around the internet on the topic of pantries, I came on Everything Pantry--a bit cute here and there, but there are sections on vintage pantries and butler's pantries. My breakfast room, which connects the kitchen and the dining room, shows signs of once having been a butler's pantry, which would have made the current pantry more of a scullery. I'm grateful for the built-in sideboard that would have held cutlery and crockery in the years after the house was built, and still does.

The Perfect Pantry is a blog focused on this very topic, with some nice entries on how to stock and use ingredients, plus a nifty continuing exploration of "Other People's Pantries"--for the food voyeur. For stocking and preserving advice, nobody is better than Sharon Astyk on Casaubon's Book. Her philosophical approach meshes nicely with Bittman's and Goodall's books.

So here's the plan: I'm tripping off to Home Depot today for better shelf paper, or perhaps some cork sheets. BS and I bought floor tiles last year to be used in the pantry and the back-porch laundry room, so I'll probably spend some time figuring out how best to install those. Since I painted the room white when we moved in, it doesn't really need to have that re-done, so I can concentrate on reorganizing shelves, rethinking contents, and simply cleaning up. I'll post the results eventually, but don't hold your breath. Inspiration comes and goes as the work load increases, and since I have grades due on Tuesday, I'll undoubtedly run out of steam as soon as I have the shelf covering in hand.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Drive-by Skies Part Two

Now that we've enjoyed pleasant weather for over a week, I'm beginning to buck up a bit. My good camera is still in its bag, though, so I've had to rely on the iPhone and more "drive-by" shots when interesting stuff appears spontaneously.

This week's opening photo was taken yesterday morning at 7 am CST just after I got to school for my 8 am class. The sun appeared rather dramatically, peeking through the new student parking garage (it was taken from the old one, where faculty members still park). But because my 2 mp resolution is so crappy, the sun looks like a blazing fireball coming at me. Still, I thought it was fun, especially since the early-morning sky is also reflected in the building windows.

The second image was taken on the first really sunny day after weeks of rain, in the same parking garage, but on the sixth floor, looking up the ramp to the roof spaces. The Simpsons theme song was going through my head as I shot it.

The day before that, the weather had started to break, and I should have had the Nikon with me to capture the incredible skies that followed me home. As it was, I only got one chance, through the car window at a stoplight.

On Halloween we went to a party for the tennis players at the head coach's house, and whilst the Beloved Spouse was building up a bonfire in a paddock, I caught the moon rising over north Texas.

Alas, it's midterm madness time once again, so this will have to be it for now. Happy Skywatch Friday, everyone. Have a terrific weekend.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Mother 'Hood

Sunday I read an article in the Daily Poop by Judith Warner, who posted the original on her blog for the New York Times, "Domestic Disturbances." So, of course I went to the source to find the post, "The Choice Myth" in its original provenance, since the Poop can't be trusted to print anything in its entirety.

In the article, Warner explores evidence that while many women are staying home with their kids, this fact alone may not represent a choice on their part, and that the "myth" of women opting out of high-power jobs in droves to go home and raise little Chauncey is baloney.

Warner is actually responding to an article in the Washington Post from earlier in the month, ("Debunking the Mommy Myth," by Donna St. George and Pamela Stone) which presents statistics that indicate less choice-making than media attention implies. In fact, the number of mythologized drop-outs may be rather small and select.

My response to the whole thing is that I'm bothered by the need to choose at all. I'm beginning to think that my generation's demand for equal rights might well have led to equal opportunities to become harried cogs in the industrial machine. Mind you, I burned my bra with the rest of my cohort, but then stayed home to raise my kids.

I'm reminded of this choice (and for me it was a choice; in fact, I chose to stay home not only for my kids, but because I thought I might be taking a job away from someone who needed it more) whenever I get my Social Security statement in the mail. There, between 1976 and 1986, is a large gap: zero income for all ten years. Once I got my first TAship, the money started dribbling in until I got my first full-time teaching gig only fifteen years ago.

There are several problems with questions about who's staying home and why. One is the lingering notion/prejudice that stay-at-home moms aren't doing "real" work. I can't tell you how many times I had to respond snittily to remarks like "Oh; you stay home with your kids. So you don't work." Of course I worked. Just like the people who take care of working women's kids work. Only harder, because I did it 24 hours a day.

When my children entered school I started volunteering: Montessori school art teacher and materials designer, elementary school library and Junior Great Books, school district's library committee and outdoor learning center. This experience kept me in touch with my son and then my daughter even when they weren't home, and also helped prepare me for teaching once they'd fled the nest for high school pursuits and college. I went to grad school in the evenings when their father was home, and full time when they were in high school. My own family's rule had always been "18 and you're on your own" (because nobody could have afforded to send us to college), and even though my kids did get their college paid for, they were still pretty much independent from the moment they left the public school system.

I certainly didn't fall into the high-achieving power-job category (although I did "give up" a promising college administration career at Penn), nor was I married to a six-figure earner like one of the women in the Washington Post panel. There were some sacrifices, but I don't think any of us missed anything we did without. And even though it wasn't all peaches and flowers, I did like being with my kids and keeping house--and reading and writing and cooking and gardening--all the things I seem to have so little time for now that I have no kids at home and a "real" job.

The core question about the kind of work people do reminded me of similar questions posed by Wendell Berry, the agrarian philosopher I read more than almost anyone, who wrote an essay years ago about why he wasn't going to buy a computer, and then followed it up with one called Feminism, the Body, and the Machine (both were published in What Are People For, 1990).

Berry is a true essayist in the sense that his prose represents a journey from one idea to another, with connections made through stops along the way. So, what starts out as a response to comments made on his original essay ends up as a small treatise on craftsmanship--and because of this I'll probably put it on the reading list for my Winter course on the evolution of the Arts and Crafts movement. It's also a defense of choosing to stay home and practice home economics, the nobility of meaningful work, and everybody's stake in not succumbing to the power of industrial civilization to turn us all into robots.

This strikes me as being at the center of all of these "mommy wars" discussions about whether we should stay home, "work for a living," or somehow combine the two without driving ourselves nuts and bringing up spoiled brats or little monsters: meaningful work. Does it really benefit anyone (except perhaps manufacturers of stuff we may or may not need) if a woman goes to work on an assembly line, tightening the same set of screws every day of her working life? Do men find this kind of work worthwhile? What kinds of work are women choosing (if they do choose, that is) when they stay in the workforce after having kids? Is it more worthy, intellectually challenging, or rewarding than teaching youngsters how to bake bread or grow tomatoes?

I don't know the answers to any of this. But I do know that the so-called choices we are making are being framed by people who care far more about profits on Wall Street than about real lives of real people, and by people who care fare less about the environment and the world as a whole than they do about their bottom line.

Unlike Wendell Berry, I've adopted the computer precisely because I don't write for a living. If I want to write, I have to write fast, and the computer helps me do so. But if I had my druthers, and if I were flush enough to buy a cabin in the woods, grow my own food, and ditch the car, I'd happily go back to pen and pencil, or to my Olivetti portable, to get the writing done. Nobody would read it, of course, but I'm not sure that's why I do it. Not many people read this stuff as it is, computer or no, but there's some satisfaction involved in organizing ones thoughts and essaying through ideas when they come pressing in from the ever-present outside world. Thankfully, the children are grown and gone and working at jobs they seem to like. So I think I made the right choice.

By the way, it's raining again.

Image credit: Carl Larsson's idyllic domestic paintings came to mind immediately when I was thinking about the combination of Arts and Crafts movement, family, work, and living without much technology. This one, Kitchen (1898), seemed an appropriate illustration. Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Desert Longing

Seasonal Affective Disorder grips me from time to time, usually after a long, dreary, cold week in January. But climate change has produced some interesting effects in north Texas, not the least of which is the succession of rainy weeks that has filled the reservoirs but severly dampened (ahem) my spirits.

I get predictably homesick in the fall anyway, because the change of seasons in the desert usually happens quite suddenly. The Owens Valley would change colors from the green/brown/beige of summer overhung with clear blue skies to the gold, red, orange, yellow, and beige of autumn (and the arrival of clouds along the ridge line of the mountains) in a matter of a few hours. The temperature typically drops from 90s to 70s in the daytime, and the nights get cooler as well.

In north Texas, where I've spent most of the last thirty years, the change is less obvious--except that this year the transition from summer (hot, sultry, muggy, and bug-filled) to fall (usually less hot, less muggy, with fewer bugs) has been just plain wet. I think we've only seen three or four sunny days since the equinox, and have measured over six inches of rain. It's not that I don't appreciate the rain, since it promises a longer, greener, cooler spring. But for a desert rat, there's such a thing as too much water, especially all at one time.

I can be excused, I think, for succumbing to nostalgia--especially since I haven't spent much time in the desert since 1999, when my husband and I visited my folks on the western side of the Sierras, and then traveled over the mountains, through the sequoias, and down into the valley in which I was born. We then traveled out again over the Inyos to Death Valley on our way back to Texas. The photos for this post were taken then. At least I can enjoy the sun and the clear desert air in memory, until things get a bit crisper and more autumnal around here and I can start to appreciate what the prairie has to offer.

The opening shot was taken from Uhlmeyer Spring (named after the great uncle who prepared his ore there after prospecting) looking toward Big Pine and the Sierras near sunset.

We then traveled out over Death Valley Road, and arrived at the north end of the monument at Eureka Valley, near Ubehebe Crater, and took some photos while overlooking some pretty amazing geology and a nicely contrasting skyline.

On our way back through Pueblo country (Petrified Forest) we stopped to see some relict walls and rock drawings (peckings, really). I remember hearing a child ask his mother why the bird was carrying a baby--but I'm pretty sure it's a frog.

At the very beginning of this year (during one of those dreary weeks in January) I posted on "Desert Love" in response to a wonderful film a Brazilian friend recommended to me. This time my nostalgic musings took me back to my own desert, and I'm glad I remembered the trip.

Before I had a chance to post this, the sun finally came out, and by the time I got home the temperature had dropped (it was warm enough this morning when I left, in the dark, at 6:30 am to cause a heavy fog), so that I was considerably cheered by a sunny, fall evening. I have been promised sun tomorrow by the local weather wonks, but rain may return at the weekend. Hope everyone else has a happy Skywatch Friday.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Six Months Out

Some of the most aggravating pleonasms in use today include phrases like "first-year anniversary" or (even worse, and it's not really a pleonasm) "three-month anniversary." Anni is the Latin root for "year," so "first-year" (or second or third, or whatever) is redundant.

The proper way to mark the date is to say, simply, "first anniversary." Since a month is not a year, any "-month anniversary" is just plain wrong. Years ago, our family coined the term "mensaversary" (from the Latin mensa, month) to mark smaller celebratory events--like a baby's "first mensaversary" at age one month.

What brings the topic to mind is yesterday's sixth mensaversary of my valve replacement. Since I was, at the time, pretty sure I'd never get to this point, it probably is something worth celebrating--halfway to my first anniversary of not being dead (again).

Having already fallen off the rehab wagon (first the heat, and then the rain, and always the mosquitoes), I'm trying to celebrate by starting afresh, now that I've got a schedule that allows for a couple of days in which I can spend mornings gardening and taming the carbon sink, and more mornings I can use to get my butt moving.

As usual, however, I seem to have been waiting for a confluence of inspirations, and they've shown up in spades. First was Richard Wrangham's Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, followed by Prevention magazine's September issue, which featured an article on fatty acids, a blog post in NutritionData on the benefits of the "Paleo Diet" vs. the Mediterranean Diet, and finally Andrew Weil's new book Why Our Health Matters.

Catching Fire is the kind of book I absolutely relish (and no, I'm not going to launch into a series of food puns). Its about anthropology and things culinary all at the same time. Wrangham's premise is that what makes us human (or "uniquely unique" among a large family of talented apes) is not using tools to make stuff, or using metaphor (as I once thought was the characteristic, until Koko the gorilla started making them), or acquiring language (since Koko and other apes can do that, too). Rather, it's the fact that our distant ancestors tamed fire and learned to cook their food--opening up a much wider variety of culinary sources than were available before somebody accidentally dropped a fish into the campfire and loved the results.

The cultural significance of cooking was recognized in my generation by Claude Levi-Strauss but, as Wrangham points out, Levi-Strauss and his heirs saw cooking as a primarily symbolic act. But Wrangham, a biological anthropologist, digs into the biochemical changes that cooking introduces and reveals some interesting cultural implications that lead up to modern human behavior.

I've been interested in the subject of food and culture (so much so that I've been busy designing a course on it for years--but have so far only managed a "Taste of Tut" presentation with one of the chef instructors in the culinary program) for quite a while. One of my research interests in graduate school was the relationship between breastfeeding and child-spacing in hunting and gathering cultures, and calorie intake turned out to be a major factor. Wrangham confirms the connection and goes on to explore the impact of cooked food and brain development, along with a plethora of other ramifications. The book is fascinating and a wonderful addition to your culinary history bookshelf.

Every week a bulletin from NutritionData (know what you eat) shows up in my e-mailbox, and its blog is on my weekly path through cyberspace. Monica Reinagel discusses various nutrition-related topics, and one recent post asked "Is Paleo the New Mediterranean?" and noted the results of a couple of small studies comparing the long-appreciated benefits of eating like a Greek peasant to eating like a "caveman" (their word, not mine). The paleo-adherants (who eschew all grains, legumes, and potatoes, among other things) improved their glucose tolerance and waist-circumferences far better than did the pasta-and-fava eaters.

So I looked up the Paleo Diet (the Next Big New Thing, as far as I can tell), which differs from the raw-food diet (a less recent entry in the revolutionary diet pantheon) in that food can be cooked. As is usual with such things, there's certainly something to be said about eating fewer of one item or another, or more of another. But I am always suspicious of "diets" that require one to abandon cultural connections or adhere to a strict list of guidelines that completely eliminate certain groups of food from consumption at all. Increasingly listening to the moderate voice, I'm with the Greeks here: nothing to excess. My days of being a Kosher vegetarian are long behind me.

Which is why I was glad to see Dr. Andrew Weil's new book Why Our Health Matters: A vision of Medicine that can Transform our Future on the shelf of the local B&N. I like Weil, because he's the consummate moderate: a traditionally-trained physician who sees value in many alternative or non-traditional (at least in the West) therapies. I'm not an avid follower of any of them, but Weil's critique of our so-called "health care system" is an eye-opener if you haven't already realized that what we're participating in is really a "disease management system."

Part of our ignorance about what's good for us stems from a lack of good information in the past. But we're learning more and more every day about what causes disease--and what can prevent it--and we're running out of excuses for not working to avoid illnesses rather than focusing on curing them.

My health history is a prime example of how different life could have been with the right information early on. Had we known about the dangers of genetically high cholesterol when I was a child, and had we tested for it; had we known what a huge role diet and exercise play in lowering cholesterol levels; had we known about metabolic syndrome and how to manage it when I was young; had we realized that my heart murmur signaled the possibility of valve disease. Had we known this stuff, could we have in fact prevented the necessity of two open-heart surgeries in fifteen years? A simple combination of diet, exercise, and drug therapy might have saved me and my family a great deal of angst and discomfort, and saved my employer, my insurance company, and me a large amount of money. But prevention only entered the picture after a lifetime of bad habits and lack of information had already taken their toll.

The current debate on health care reform needs to address much more fundamental issues than simply how it will affect The Deficit. Monetary cost is only part of the equation. We're living in a world that can't imagine living without plastics, but seems blissfully unaware of what making plastic costs--in environmental and human terms. We drive like maniacs down the highway, spewing particulate matter willy-nilly, and we use power that adds even more crap to the air we breathe. We just don't think about the health-related consequences of economic choices, but we'll never have really effective health care or disease prevention until we do.

In the meantime, there are probably some fairly useful and effective measures we can take on our own, beginning with diet and exercise. And while I can't subscribe whole-heartedly to the Paleo Diet or to the Raw Food doctrine, they do have something to teach us by reminding us that we havent' evolved our big brains by eating Twinkies and Big Macs. Our technologically infused age has turned the food we eat into complicated hashes of chemicals and monocultural, supermarket-focused uniformity.

Our ancestors lived on combinations of raw and cooked, minimally processed foods, hunted and gathered with restraint and care not to exhaust their sources. Their animals were not raised on feed lots and fed alien diets. Cattle grazed, in fact, on grasses rich in Omega 6 fatty acids, but our lot-fed cattle eat corn--leading (according to Prevention's article) to an imbalance between "spring" and "fall" fats and to our current growing waistlines. It certainly couldn't do us much harm to rethink how we eat and where our food comes from. Yes, grass-fed beef and bison are more expensive than conventionally "finished" beef. But we don't have to eat large amounts of it, and frankly I like the leaner (and ethically more comfortable) taste of a cow that's been allowed to graze instead of made to stand in its own excrement for the last few weeks of its life.

And now, on that happy note, I'll adjourn to the kitchen to try a new variation on Grandma Clarice's Applesauce Cake, full of all kinds of healthful ingredients, and if it turns out well, I'll post the results in the Cabinet of Wonders [linked 18 October]. Food--warm, cooked food on a nippy, dreary day in early autumn--is a terrific mood enhancer, and until I see the sun again, I'm going to need something yummy to add a psychological and/or symbolic lift to my sodden spirits. A nice sweet-potato and bean soup is waiting to be made for supper (haven't decided which Neolithic ingredients to add to the stock I made last spring), so things are looking up already.

Image credit: A stereoscopic card with a photo called "Cooking Supper" by Truman Ward Ingersoll, part of the Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views at the New York Library's Digital collection, via Wikimedia Commons. My grandmother had a stereoscope with a box of images that all the cousins loved to look at. Alas, I didn't inherit this bit of family treasure, but I don't begrudge the cousin who did, partly because images like these are so readily available online. The photo reminded me of the many campfire meals I've enjoyed throughout my life, many of them in Western national parks with my family.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Autumnal Equinox

I've been caught up in events both expected and unexpected for the last couple of weeks, so haven't had time to post anything anywhere. But since the Equinox has come and gone, I thought I'd at least get up a Skywatch entry for this week, and follow up in the next couple of days (five whole days before I have to start another quarter) with various items I've been musing about of late.

I managed to have the camera out during the runup to the Autumnal Equinox, so caught some clouds and stuff--and the farewell of the sun through the dining room window (I talked about this rather wonderful phenomenon last March, when the sun rose in the same window for the first time on the Vernal Equinox). The next morning, the sun rose behind the brick wall behind the fireplace, not to return through that window until next spring.

The opening shot is of what started out to be a pretty tame sunset, but developed into something pretty spectacular--although "uncatchable" from the back yard. So I moseyed on down to the corner for a clearer view, but discovered just how obtrusive technology can get. The result was a kind of "Sunset, with power lines interfering" (apologies to Eadweard Muybridge). In a few weeks, all these leaves will be gone, and I'll get a whole new perspective--and probably fewer technological obstructions.

The photos below are two views of a cloud formation from the previous afternoon--with and without trees. I like the contrast between the diagonal directions of tree line and cloud, but I also liked the wispy cloud all by itself. These are more typical of autumn around here, when we begin to get fewer big storm-bearing cumulus buildups, and more higher-level cirrus feathers. I can almost smell the upcoming crispness in the air--after we get through our Indian Summer.

Anyway, back to work. But happy Skywatch Friday--and Happy Fall!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Reflected Sky

I'm not seein' much sky these days--nothing but gray (I think I feel a song coming on . . .). Rain, which is (in the end) welcome, has fallen almost continuously for a week. I'm learning enough about different kinds of rain to start cataloging different words to describe them--sort of like the nine different words for snow the Inuit are supposed to have.

The shot above is of the sky reflected in my grandmother's metate, which serves as dog bowl, bird bath, and repository for dead pecans. The reflected image is the previously lightning-struck pecan tree; the metate is surrounded by blooming liriope, on which my dogs love to snooze. The photo was taken just before the rains began.

But at least the picture has something to do with the sky, and that's what counts. Happy Friday, happy Skywatch, happy weekend, everybody.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Power to the People

It seems to me that there are a number of ways in which to address community energy needs, so I’ve been thinking about local power sources for some time (see my earlier post, Not-So-Bad News from Nowhere) and was pleased to read about Hawaii’s efforts to do just that in yesterday's New York Times.

Of course, “local” in this sense is easy to identify, since we’re talking individual islands in a small archipelago. But the state's program to reduce its dependence on foreign sources of fossil fuels is laudable, since there are so many ways to generate power in this particular venue.

Wind, geothermal, wave, sun, algae: all provide potentially useful ways to run the fridge, without inflicting damage on our lungs, genes, or the environment, and they’re wonderfully diverse. One of the major stumbling blocks to alternative energy on the mainland seems to be a lack of imagination. It always seems to come down to one or the other, or maybe a couple of things. But fossil fuels are still big in the mix; nobody appears to be interested in completely phasing out the use of coal or oil or natural gas. Not when there are millions and billions to be made in fostering dependence on these sources. And don't forget nukes--the only "clean" alternative, as long as you don't count the problem of waste disposal.

Several things occur to me that might help solve our collective problems. One is to reduce our population, and thus our future power needs. Folks who are understandably worried about the debt we’re leaving to our grandchildren might want to consider reducing the number of people who will potentially suffer from our current profligacy (and this isn't just about energy, or even The Deficit). Some people like having lots of kids, and I can understand that. But having a couple of kids instead may be a much more sensible option these days, given not only the cost of providing a passel of young’ns with a decent education and standard of living, but uncertainties about the future as well. I guess it's a sign of optimism that I see so many three- or four-kid families these days, and that was probably okay in the past, when a parent (read: Mom) could stay home with the little ones during their early years. But having big families in problematic economies, when steady jobs with a future are still in question, seems at the very least unwise.

In most developed countries, populations are staying fairly steady, or even dropping (causing problems with maintaining ways of life that have been supported in the past by large numbers of offspring, and requiring influxes of foreign workers). This, of course, opens a huge can of lumbricids, and requires its own set of solutions. But one of these solutions leads to the second of my recommendations for the power problem.

We really need to re-think consumption patterns: not only our use of power for electricity, heating, transportation, and the like, but also our expectations about stuff. How much stuff (plastics come to mind immediately, but all other consumer goods should be under the microscope, too) do we really need?

Now, I’m an avowed materialist. I’m also a packrat, a family historian, a passionate recycler, and a lapsed archaeologist. I tend to keep stuff. Which means that I shouldn’t keep getting more stuff, but I do. Books and notebooks are stacked on either side of this laptop as I type, and I show few signs of beginning to manage my addiction. But if I were, according to my own advice, to think carefully about how much I really need that new book on marine algae formation and climate change, I might be able to reduce my related needs, such as more bookshelves to hold the books and magazines (which I’m really reluctant even to pitch in the recycle bin) that keep ending up on my desk .

Happily, I’m not also addicted to buying clothes or tchotchkes, and have long been able to resist buying stuff just because it’s cute, even though I sometimes rue not having picked up the funky bird bath at Tuesday Morning that would have looked great in my silly garden.

Cheap stuff is, in the end, no bargain. We should all be following William Morris’s rule about having nothing in our houses that we don’t know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. That might not exclude the birdbath (it does, after all, bathe birds), but maybe it would keep us from buying some piece of useless crap just because it’s cheap. It also costs energy and resources to produce, and if it isn’t useful or beautiful, it probably shouldn’t have been made in the first place. After all, I can always make a birdbath out of the bent-up copper fire pit the neighbor’s tree fell on, or an old bowl and a tree stump.

In addition to not having so many kids and not buying stuff we don’t need (I know, putting those two items together seems heartless and unsympathetic, not to mention somewhat crass; but I simply must maintain my reputation as a snark), we really do need to be less single-minded about energy production in the first place.

Source diversity is a really good idea in its own right. Why can’t we all have nifty wind generators or solar collectors on our rooftops, or small windmills in our yards? (Well, here's one reason why the latter might not be the answer.) Why can’t we go back to using waterwheels to grind grist where it’s practical, or steam generators in places with geothermal activity? Why can’t there be smaller, less-centralized power plants that reduce the possibility of widespread blackouts?

If the problems are complex, I see no reason why complex solutions can’t be viewed as a challenge to entrepreneurial imagination and embraced in their multiplicity. As I rail to my students every quarter (to explain why lots of people make houses that look like pueblos, and why it didn’t take aliens to inspire pyramids in so many cultures), similar problems lead to similar solutions. But those solutions don’t have to be one thing. They can be many, and regionally appropriate, and focused on the actual needs of the community.

And if we stopped thinking that the only way to reflect progress is to “grow” bigger and broader suburbs with outrageous power needs, we might already be on our way to energy independence through a practical combination of conservation and innovation.

I know I’ve left water out of this disquisition, but it’s a different (although related) problem. And right now, after more than a week of rain, I’m up to my nose in it—so I’ll save that issue for another time.

If I've piqued anyone's interest in either alternative energy sources, increased energy efficiency, or distributed power generation (a term in wide use that describes the decentralization I'm talking about), here are some sources:

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory
The New Rules Project: Designing Rules as if Community Matters, especially its article on Distributed Generation in Local Plans (also linked above)
The Survival of and Potential for Decentralized Power Generation, by Harry Valentine, at Electric Energy Online

Image source: Landscape with Windmills, by Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900), via Wikimedia Commons. Check out windmills around the world on Wikimedia while you're at it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Pirate Balloon

Things are coolin' down around here, and we're comin' up on the Fall festivities, so (since I've got nothin' else at the moment) I though I'd post this.

Skies are great backdrops for what human beings do in them. Like fly airplanes and gliders and dirigibles and other technological wonders.

But balloons are big around here, and every Fall, one of the towns south of us hosts a Balloon Festival, and Beloved Spouse's tennis team has to park the folk that come by. They earn money doing this, which helps foster the Collin College tennis team's various outings on their way to occasionally winning NJCAA championships. When my kids were little, the Festival happened on open space that they eventually ended up living on for a bit. Now it's held on the grounds of the College.

This is from last fall. It's raining now, and there's not much sky action, so this'll have to do. This year's festival starts in a couple of weeks. About all the entertainment BS gets on these outings is to take pictures. I especially like this one, being a devout Pastafarian and all.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Confederacy of Nincompoops

Since the decline of Western Civilization--at least as manifested in these United States--currently shows signs of accelerating rather than abating any time soon, I thought I'd post this both on the Farm and Owl of Athena because it relates both to political economy and to education.

I have, of course, stolen the title--cheesily altered--from John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. His hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, was a fully-realized snark and I loved the book--but haven't read it in twenty years. If Toole had lived to see what happened to New Orleans a few years ago, he'd probably have written a sequel; but the world was already too much for him, and he died by his own hand over ten years before A Confederacy of Dunces was finally published.

Toole was a latter-day Jonathan Swift, critical of cultural excess and stupidity in the '80s, and he drew his title from Swift's own "Thoughts on Various Subjects": "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign: that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."

Now, I'm not saying that Barack Obama is a "true genius," even though he well may be. He is, after all, a politician, and he seems poised to weasel out of a host of platform promises on some Quixotic quest of his own--bipartisanism. But for sure, the dunces and nincompoops have arisen, if not in actual hoards, at least in loud numbers that make the evening news every bloody night, and promise to make it more and more difficult for him to accomplish what he was elected to do.

Another of Swift's aphorisms (from the same source as Toole's title) speaks to the current phenomenon of loud-mouthed, ill-informed rantings that go on in the so-called "town meetings" and that may well signal the end of civil discourse in this country.

Few are qualified to shine in company; but it is in most men's power to be agreeable. The reason, therefore, why conversation runs so low at present, is not the defect of understanding, but pride, vanity, ill-nature, affectation, singularity, positiveness, or some other vice, the effect of a wrong education.

Or of no education at all, perhaps. Otherwise, why would any reasonable human being yank a kid out of class in fear of being "indoctrinated" by the duly elected President of the United States? The promised topic is a pep-talk on staying in school in order to excel in life. Objections to the address on the basis of some paranoid fear of subliminal persuasion to embrace Socialism sounds to me like these parents--who really don't want their kids in public school anyway, but can't "afford" to home school them, or sacrifice anything to send them to private parochial schools--just don't want their children educated at all, in any meaningful sense of the word.

They want the Bible taught in school, but they sure as hell don't want Biblical hermeneutics taught because that might cause kids to question particular interpretations of the book itself, or perhaps to insist that it be read in context. They want Creationism or Intelligent Design taught to "balance" the godlessness of "Darwinism," and they don't "believe" in the evidence emerging from science in regard to climate change. They want their kids to read "the classics," but only the ones they approve of. History has to tell it the way it was told when they were kids, despite any evidence that's emerged during the last hundred years or so that contradicts received views. And the United States must never, ever, be portrayed in a negative light. Art history can be taught, but parents want to be assured that little Chase won't see breasts on a Greek statue, or little Britney won't see the giant phallus on a Pacific Island totem, so don't take 'em to a museum.

I know that not all parents act this way, but the furor over President Obama's speech has brought back a flood of memories about recent skirmishes in local public schools, and the constant battles that go on over Texas textbook choices. I long for a new William F. Buckley to appear to bring intelligent voices back into Conservative conversations. David Brooks and Rod Dreher can only pull so much weight, and even they're drowned out when the screamers take the podium and start out-shouting reasonable discussion.

The truth is, if we keep on this path toward willful ignorance, afraid to let our children make up their own minds about issues, they'll never learn to think critically, and there won't be anyone around in the future to solve the problems we're not addressing today.

As I discussed the Norman Conquest in my art and design history classes this week, I was once again reminded that our children don't know much about the history of the world. Medieval life is a mystery to them (except the Disney or Monty Python versions), not because it's not especially interesting, but because some nincompoop school system doesn't think "ancient history" is very important. This despite the parallels between the Middle Ages and the present that keep popping up.

Around here it's because you'd have to talk about controversial religious matters, and point out conflicting ideas about the role of religion in the formation of the modern world. But modernity and change are issues that parents don't seem to want to deal with, and they don't seem to be particularly worried about being condemned to repeat what we've forgotten about history.

The focus on education is increasingly seen as "elitism," even as we're told to send everyone to college who can breathe, whether or not he or she is really interested in doings so, or prepared to work at it. Those of us who have gone beyond college are suspect, because so many of us favor thinking carefully instead of proceeding headlong into an argument with nothing but opinions as grounds.

Among Swift's other remarks (not all of which are particularly useful) is this: "Some people take more care to hide their wisdom than their folly."

Some people seem to be reveling in their folly, at the expense of ever attaining wisdom. The old guard--the politicians and commentators who could discuss issues rationally despite their differences, like Ted Kennedy and Bill Buckley--is gone, and I for one miss the folks who could keep us honest and reasonably well-informed. Their measured assessments of current issues are swiftly being replaced by squawking and flummery, and our country is intellectually poorer as a result.

Images: William Hogarth's Chairing the Member, from The Humours of an Election series, 1755. When considering how to "illuminate" this post, I immediately thought of Hogarth's rabble-rousers in this series on popular elections. New Orleans, Mardi Gras Day, 2006: Rex Parade float commemorating A Confederacy of Dunces on Canal Street near the corner of Charters. It's good to see that Toole's book is still celebrated in his home town. Photo by Infrogmation. Jonathan Swift, portrait by Charles Jervas, 1718. All from Wikimedia Commons.