Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Manchester Elementary School: Rewind

Last time it was Center Road Elementary School. Now we're really going back... back to the deep, dark mid-1970s. Back to Manchester Elementary School, my home institution from 1974-77.

Unlike Center Road, Manchester still stands. I think it became some kind of community center after they built the new schools. I've wandered past Manchester on trips home now and again, and the building seems, you guessed it, a lot smaller than I remember it. A lot smaller. As a kid I thought the "multi-purpose room" (gym/cafeteria/auditorium) was cavernous. It's like the size of my garage.

I don't think we had a gym class per se, but once in a while our regular teacher would take us down to the multi-purpose room to do jumping jacks and stuff. Once, the teacher said we would be playing with the parachute next week. I pictured us jumping off the stage, or maybe even the gym roof, with little parachutes on our backs, floating to the ground. When the day finally came, they took out an old surplus army parachute and then had us all grab the edge and flap it up and down. One of my greatest disappointments.

We had half-day kindergarten. Not even half-day. We arrived around 8:15, and started lining up for the bus at 10:45. It hardly seems worth getting dressed for. In kindergarten I achieved the double distinction of both peeing my pants and barfing, but not on the same day. The pants-peeing happened when we were sitting on the floor having a book read to us. The floor was cold and I was wearing thin pants. It stimulated something, and before I knew it, I was sitting in a puddle. The barfing happened right before Christmas break. I'd been queasy all morning and distinctly remember coloring outside the lines and not caring. When we put on our coats and waited to be called out to the bus, I couldn't hold it in any longer and spewed all over my plaid wool scarf. I remember seeing raisins in it from the Raisin Bran I'd eaten for breakfast.

I won't engage in false modesty and say I was an average student. I was pretty far ahead. My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Peterson, knew how to handle me. She let me read ahead, and I finished the reader on the first day (I was already reading encyclopedias and newspapers by this time.) She then had her son, Jamie, come over from the high school and spend time with me while the other kids did the regular reading. He brought a book with a bunch of paper airplane designs, and we would go out in the hall and make paper airplanes and talk about aerodynamics. Hey, Jamie, if you're out there, thanks. I ended up working on the Space Shuttle.

There was a jogging craze in the early 70s. Mrs. Peterson created an activity where we would jog around the playground and estimate the distance in kilometers, because of course the country was going to convert to the metric system. For every kilometer, or lap around the playground, or whatever, you got to put a foot outline by your name on the wall. My line of feet went way past the other kids', all the way around three walls. This was not because I was a good runner -- it was because I always finished my lessons early and was then allowed to go outside and jog.

Mrs. Peterson put together a spring show. We sang "Top Of The World" by the Carpenters and "Feelin' Groovy" by Simon and Garfunkel. A twentyish, hippie teacher's aide came some days, and she had us make God's Eyes out of popsicle sticks and yarn. Yes, this was the 70s, folks.

My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Huffman, was less successful at controlling me and I had some discipline problems that year. That is to say, I was a big pain in the ass. She was by-the-book and made me follow the same lessons as everyone else. We learned about dinosaurs and she made up a dinosaur-themed board game. I was chosen to play in the first game. The other player's dinosaur was creeping up on me, and I said, "I'd better get my butt out of there." For that, I was sent to stand outside in the hall. I think she also punished a kid for saying "darn" once. We had the desks where the top is hinged and opens up a storage bin where you put your books and things. One kid always had a messy desk, and Mrs. Huffman would dramatically dump it on the floor about once a month so he'd have to put his things neatly back in.

This is getting long. Let's see...the playground. I don't remember whether this was first or second grade, but the school bought a new jungle gym and we could see the workmen building it from our classroom window. When they finally finished it, our teacher let us immediately go outside and climb on it, even though it wasn't recess time. I ran as fast as I could and was the very first kid to get up on it. That damned thing was there for like 30 years, but I see from Google Maps that it's gone now.

The playground had an enormously tall slide, tall enough so that if a kid fell from the top, he'd have been seriously injured. Later they put down a thick rubber mat to make it a little safer, but when we were there it was a 15-foot drop onto plain asphalt. But I don't remember anyone ever falling. There were also some huge swings; once you got going, you were way off the ground. Once I walked too close to the swings, not paying attention, and a swinger kicked me in the head hard enough that it literally altered my sense of smell for a couple hours.

Each class had a supply of toys and balls you could take out to recess, first come first served. One day my friends and I grabbed one of those big red rubber school balls everyone must remember. We were booting it around when Wayne Sprafka came and took the ball from us and kicked it over the hedge, into the nursery field next door to the school, where we were unable to retrieve it. We said, "We're gonna tell," and we did, and he got busted. Wayne also dumped a whole bottle of purple paint on our art projects. Wherever you are, Wayne, keep it crazy.

As I said, I had some discipline issues in second grade. The playground was bordered by a wooded area that had a path leading into it. Kids were not allowed to go back there, but one spring day, we did anyway. It gets better. We were out of sight of the teachers, and when the bell rang for everyone to line up and go back to class, we just stayed out there. I guess nobody noticed we were missing. After a few minutes, we started to realize that we'd have to go back inside eventually, and there was going to be no way to sneak it. So we just had to bite the bullet and walk back into class. "Where were you?!" "Uh, we stayed in the woods after the bell rang." I don't remember the punishment, but I sure remember the offense, so it must have been worth it. I know I didn't get "swats" (corporal punishment, can you believe a school doing that now?) I only got swats once, and it was much later.

Going to have to wrap this up. In second grade, a kid's lunch money was lost or stolen (probably lost). The thief, if there was one, was never caught, so strict Mrs. Huffman made a rule that you had to give her your lunch money in the morning, and then she would parcel it back out at lunchtime. This went on the rest of the school year - seems like overkill. Lunch was 40 cents including milk, and milk by itself was six cents. A nickel and a penny. On hot dog day, an aide would sit at a desk, and you'd say, "ketchup", "mustard" or "both", and she'd squirt it on your hot dog. This is getting disjointed and it's getting late, so that's going to have to be it.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Center Road Elementary School: Rewind

I have a pretty good memory, but am getting old enough that a few leaves are starting to fall off the tree. So I'm going to get the rake out and pile them up one last time before the wind blows them away forever. I did this a few years ago on another blog and was happy with the results, although Blogger shows the posts in reverse order and I'm too lazy to figure out how to change it.

This post will concern the same time frame, but there won't be a narrative, just some memories. I went to Center Road Elementary School in Perry, Ohio from 1977 to 1980. Back then, it was a one-story brick building with three classroom hallways (one for each grade, third through fifth) with one of those combination cafeteria/gyms at one end. Today, it's just a grassy field. But... I remember a few things.

It was built on flat ground, but the third-grade hallway had a weird slope in the middle of it. I wonder if it was a construction mistake. That hallway was where the janitor's closet was. Some of the teachers would assign a student to clean the erasers, and the eraser-cleaning machine was in the janitor's closet. It was dark and kind of spooky in there. There was one of those "civil defense" signs inside - I guess that's where they would have put us in the event of World War 3. They could have fit about 20 kids in there.

The eraser-cleaning machine was a small cast-iron vacuum cleaner bolted to a table. You held the eraser up against a hole and flipped a switch, and the machine sucked the chalk dust out of the eraser. It was louder than hell, especially in that little closet. In that closet was a shelf where the janitor kept his supply of ZGOOP. You remember ZGOOP, don't you? That was the sawdust-like stuff the janitor would use to soak up puke. They still make it!

Eraser duty was a privilege because you got to do it unsupervised. So of course we did things like jam the erasers into the hole until they hit the impeller, which would scorch them and make a bad smell.

The third grade classrooms had coat closets attached to them. They were long skinny rooms with a row of coat hooks on the wall, that opened back into the classroom on either end. A couple of the older teachers - and some of them must have been teaching since the 1940s - would call them "wraps" instead of coats. "Children, it's time to put on your wraps and get ready for recess." The classrooms also had sinks. Once a girl ran to the sink red-faced, and threw up into it. The janitor didn't need his ZGOOP that time.

Mr. Snyder was the janitor. One day at lunch, I was taking my tray up to the trash can, and he said, "These kids throw away more food than you can shake a stick at." That was the first time I'd ever heard the phrase and it took me a while to get his meaning. He was right, we did throw away a lot of food. Some of the food was decent. They would always serve potato chips on pizza day and we'd put potato chips on our pizza. The spaghetti wasn't great - they scooped it out of the steam table and it sort of stayed in the shape of a scoop - but they served a slice of decent Italian bread with it and we would make a spaghetti sandwich.  Some boys would take their leftover food and stir it all together into a disgusting stew. Then the principal said if he caught us doing that again, we would be forced to eat it.

Recess. The playground had a paved part, with swings and basketball hoops, and an unpaved part that was sort of grassy but had gravel scattered around it. We used to play tackle football at recess, but kids were coming in bloody from hitting the gravel. So they made a rule: tackle football is OK (hey, this was northeast Ohio), but you have to play it on the football field, adjacent to the playground. We would go straight to the football field in the dead of winter. We didn't get hurt because we all had those ridiculous puffy down jackets and rubber snow boots. Some kids even wore leggings. It was tough to run in that getup. Kids would do that old trick of putting bread bags over their feet before putting their boots on, to keep their socks dry.

When it rained, kids would come to school in yellow rain slickers and rubber overshoes. What a hassle getting in and out of those things. Today when it rains, I usually don't even grab an umbrella. It's just water!

The school was close to town and some kids were "walkers". If I recall correctly, the walkers got to leave a little early, before the buses came into the driveway. We would put our coats on at 1:45 and sit back down in our seats to wait to be released. They would announce the buses over the PA. "Bus 7 may now line up on the sidewalk."

The town library was about a quarter mile down the road, and once in while if the weather was good, the teacher would walk us over there and we'd check out a couple books. That was a real treat. We would walk right past the house of the lady who gave me piano lessons. My lesson was in the early morning and her house always smelled like burnt toast. I would be dropped off, and then after the lesson would walk over to school. I would get there about 15 minutes late, which the adults thought was OK but which made me really feel uncomfortable. Kids would say, "Why do you come in late every Tuesday?" and I'd have to tell them I took a piano lesson. I hated the piano lessons and really enjoyed being able to walk past her toast-smelling house without going in.

In the fall of the fifth grade, I got a paper route. That was not an easy job for a 10-year-old. I had to deliver about 25 papers seven days a week, rain or shine, 365 days a year. The weekend edition was a morning paper, so I didn't get to sleep in on a weekend for the whole three years I had the route. It was like something out of a Dickens novel. OK, maybe that's an exaggeration.

The principal, Mr. Hambor, was a tall, good-looking gay guy in a time when adults did not talk about these things, but all the kids knew. He would get fussy in a slightly gay way when we misbehaved. During lunch, if we got too loud and the teacher aide couldn't shush us, Mr. Hambor would come in and flip the lights off. The kids would go "Woooooo!" and then quiet down. He'd always say the same thing: "Boys and girls, hey! It's getting a little looooud in here."  At assemblies, if there was a reason to clap, sometimes we would start to clap in unison. After a while, he said, "Don't do that! Do you think you're in Europe?" I have no idea what he meant by that. He punched a kid in the shoulder once, right in front of us all. Not hard, just enough to get the kid's attention, but it was a punch.

There were two teacher aides, a nice one (Mrs. Toth) and a grouchy one who I won't name. The grouchy one was really mean sometimes. Once, she quieted the kids down, but I didn't realize it and kept talking. She said, loudly so all the other kids could hear, "Do you think you're some kind of an exception?" Embarrassing.

There was no air conditioning and the boys weren't allowed to wear shorts even though the girls could wear skirts. That still sticks in my craw. Today all the schools have air conditioning, and the boys can wear skirts.

1980 was fifth grade and that was the year my friend died. I wouldn't say we were best friends, but we were as good friends as a boy and girl can be at that age. She had sat behind me in the fourth grade and had a kickass set of magic markers that were scented. Yellow was lemon, purple was grape and so on. She would let me borrow them. Then we were in the fifth grade together. Our fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson, was athletic and liked to take us down to the gym to play warball, and would get in and play with us. (Mrs. Wilson could really sling the ball and wouldn't hesitate to take you out. I ended up getting a Ph.D. in engineering, but Mrs. Wilson gave me a C in arithmetic one quarter and I deserved it.) My friend and I would make a pact not to throw the warball at each other.

She had been out of school with a cold for, if I remember, two or three weeks, and then she came back to school on a snowy day. There was a snowball fight at recess, and she was getting the worse of it, and was crying. She caught the cold again and was out of school. Then one morning all the girls were clustered up in the back of the classroom. I was sitting at my desk, reading, if you can believe it, a big hardcover edition of Roots. I wonder what the kids thought of that. Then Mrs. Wilson said, "I guess you've all heard about []...she died yesterday." Wow. No, I hadn't heard. They gave her aspirin and she got Reye's Syndrome and died. It was in March.

Today, they would have grief counselors and the whole bit, but the adults never mentioned it after the morning bell rang. I don't think they even made a schoolwide announcement. A few weeks later they built her a little stone memorial that sat in the grassy area in front of the school. The school is gone, but the memorial is still there, in a little clump of trees in the middle of an otherwise empty field. I wonder how many people who see it have any idea who it was for. Eventually they'll take it down.

Now I'm getting upset, so I'm gonna quit. Next time: Manchester Elementary School.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Crisis Scenario

A couple of posts ago I talked about the generational theory of history and how it predicts that the present chaos will rise to a climax some time within the next ten years, and then be resolved by a general tearing down of old institutions and a building up of new ones. That process may or may not be violent.

It's natural to want to think of nonviolent ways the crisis could be resolved, but until today I was coming up dry. Today I hit on a possible peaceful way out of our current early-1930s-style malaise. Mind you this is not something a few people can bring about voluntarily. It has to just happen. Also, even though people won't be shooting at each other, it will still lead to major disruptions of many of our assumptions about how America functions.

It starts from the notion that the crisis was brought on by failed institutions. Government, universities, corporations, and the international banking system took the forms we know today in response to the problems of the 1930s and 1940s. Those problems have been solved for decades. The European powers are not at war with each other nor is continental Europe in ruins from years of war. There are no colonial governments trying to keep the lid on nationalist movements. No Americans are living without food, medicine, heat and light.

But there are new problems. Millions of people are expecting old-age benefits that cannot possibly be paid. Young people have to incur heavy debts just to have a shot at a middle-class career. Military threats come from "non-state actors." The entry of billions of poor people into the global labor pool has dented the economic prospects of workers in developed countries. The institutions set up to solve the old problems are utterly unable to solve these new problems. The crisis will not resolved until those institutions are replaced.

To show how this may come about peacefully, I'll take the best example I can think of, which is the healthcare system. That system, which is run by politicians, employers and insurance companies instead of doctors and patients, is a twelve-headed monster that grew out of the need to attract employees during the 1940s when the whole workforce was being soaked up by war production. Wage controls meant you could not entice people with high pay, so companies offered medical insurance as a fringe benefit.

Seventy years later, you pay for your annual checkup like this:

1. Earn a wage
2. Your company takes part of your earnings and kicks in some extra and gives it to an insurance company. You pay some of the earnings in federal income tax.
3. An insurance company receives money from you and also from various federal programs that distribute the income taxes paid.
3. You go to the doctor. You have no idea how much it costs because there is no list of fees. There is no list of fees because they charge everyone a different amount. The doctor might order a test, which you will of course agree to undergo, but nobody will be able to tell you how much it will cost.
4. The doctor sends a bill to your insurance company. The insurance company reads thousands of pages of federal regulations to determine how much of the bill it is legally required to cover. Then it possibly pays part of the rest of the bill depending on your insurance plan, whether you've met your deductible, your copay, and so on.
5. The insurance company tells the doctor's office how much he'll receive, which may be different from what he billed.
6. The doctor's office may dispute the charges or may just accept the payment. The doctor's office may also discover that you gave them your cousin's insurance card, in which case they are what CPAs refer to as "shit out of luck."
7. The insurance company pays the amount that was agreed as appropriate.

Before the 1940s, if people had medical insurance at all, it was "major medical," which only paid for unpredictable treatments like accidents or cancer. For your annual checkup,

1. The doctor said, "I do checkups for $10."
2. You got the checkup and paid $10.

Obamacare claimed to be a reform, but it only enlarged the role of the government and insurance companies in this circus of insanity. It is a classic Hail Mary maneuver of a system unable to solve problems because the solution would demand that the system itself be scrapped. Some people think a single-payer system would make everyone happier. They imagine such a system would be run by consultants from the Harvard School of Public Health. But in fact it would be run by Congress. If you have confidence in Congress, you're in a small minority these days.

What's the way out? Things are brewing. Many doctors already don't accept government insurance and a few don't even accept private insurance, because the hassle just isn't worth it. They take payment in cash and do fine for the most part. But it's no longer legal to opt out of the system. The law says you have to buy insurance (at inflated rates because of mandated coverages you probably don't want) or pay the Obamacare mandate penalty. So you have to be pretty burned up at the insurance system to pay your mandate penalty and pay cash to a cash-only medical practice.

The government's ability to charge you the penalty depends on its knowing your income. But what if a company paid its employees in cash, or Bitcoins or some other untraceable cryptocurrency? Lots of small businesses, especially family businesses, pay employees under the table in order to avoid taxes. The idea is there; all it needs to do is spread. And spread it may, because the healthcare system cannot control costs. Is it unthinkable that a penicillin shot "within the system" might cost you $1000 in a few years? It's no more unthinkable than paying $28 for a Tylenol or $500 for a drive-by consult you never asked for while you're in the hospital, and that happens all the time. When things get so bad that people can't afford the care they need within the system, they'll go outside the system.

I see it happening first in the software industry. A small company will say, "We'll pay you the equivalent of 25% over market in the form of Bitcoins, and we aren't too curious about what you do with them."  Then you pay your doctor in Bitcoins. Things may break down to the point where the IRS just doesn't have the resources to stop it. And once it reaches a critical mass, no company will be able to survive unless it does the same thing. It's like illegal immigration. One desperate construction company back in 1985 takes a chance on hiring some illegal immigrants and paying them under the table; they get away with it and thirty years later it's the norm and companies that try to do things legally can't make a profit. And the feds can't, or won't, do anything to stop it.

Eventually, the old insurance system would go bankrupt because nobody would be paying into it. It's possible that those who benefit from the old system might take to violence in order to preserve it - people underestimate the selfishness and detachment of the elites from the problems of average Americans. But I think that is unlikely. That's just one example of the general idea of alternate institutions growing up to replace the old failing ones in nonviolent, gradual, innovative ways that require just a wee bit of lawbreaking. This example is of course totally illegal by current law. But remember, the crisis can only be resolved by radical restructuring. At least in my scenario, nobody ends up hanging from a lamppost.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Short Rights Movement: A Brief History (Partial)

Note: This essay is complete baloney, except for the statistics, which are all true.

Looking back over five decades of progress in securing the rights of Short-Americans (SAs), one cannot fail to marvel at how rapidly this group transformed from second-class citizenship to full membership in the diverse communities that make up contemporary America. In the early 2000s, studies showed alarming disparities at both ends of the economic scale. The working-class SA could expect 2.6% lower earnings for each inch of height deficit after controlling for other variables. And fully 90% of CEOs were above average in height, with only 3% being shorter than 5' 7". No President since McKinley has been shorter than 5' 9".

Discrimination against SAs extended to the social realm as well as the economic. Confirming a long-suspected truth, women reported that, other things being equal, a 5' 4" man would have to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more per year to compensate for his shortness, compared to a six-footer. Incredibly, personal ads at dating sites allowed women to specify a desired height, often stating things like "Under 5' 8" need not respond." However, women themselves were not immune from anti-Short discrimination. In fact, a significant thread of the women's movement pinned their inferior status not on gender, but on the height differential between the average woman and the average man.

The media compounded the problems by consistently portraying short people as somehow defective. Joe Pesci made a career playing obnoxious short men, and fictional characters like George Costanza of Seinfeld, Lord Farquad from Shrek and Carlton from Fresh Prince of Bel Air were objects of ridicule because of their below-normal height.

The first rumblings of discontent were, as usual, heard on college campuses. SAs at Princeton, Yale and other elite schools formed chapters of Short Advocates. This group's stated mission was to "raise awareness of issues affecting SAs by any means necessary." A more radical group, Napoleon Complex, lambasted the Short Advocates' mission statement, claiming that the phrase "raise awareness" tended to privilege height. Napoleon Complex was implicated in several violent disruptions of college basketball games in which especially tall players were "pantsed" by activists equipped with portable ladders. Their most famous event was of course during the 2023 NCAA Championship in which they replaced the display cards of the Georgetown cheering section with cards that spelled SHORT HATE MUST DIE. A visibly moved Bob Costas could be seen briefly clenching his fist as the broadcast was cut to the studio while order was restored.

At this point I had to stop writing the essay on account of excessive silliness.

The Brain Is A Third-Rate Author

Once in a while I'll dream that I'm reading a book or a newspaper or some other kind of extended text. Except for a special situation that I'll describe later, if I try to actually read the text versus just sort of looking at it, something interferes. For example, the light dims, or a towel or something moves over the text to obscure it. Or, I might see what looks like a page of text but the closer I look, the less sense it makes. There might be a few words, but separated by unintelligible runs, like

Mary had fffesgre g       fe   little f^&GR lamb and not with.

I think what's going on is that the brain can only generate "generic" images for the dream; it isn't smart enough to generate real text.  If you see a tree in the dream, your brain has seen enough trees and has evolved over thousands of generations to be good at recognizing them, so it can paint a pretty good picture of a tree for you to "see" in your dream. You can focus in on the leaves and bark, and they look real -- real enough that the generic tree your brain generates is indistinguishable from a real tree.

But a generic book is just a rectangular object with a cover and some pages, and the pages contain letters and typical words like "and" and "or". Beyond that, each book you have on your bookshelf is different. It has different words and pictures. It would take conscious effort to synthesize a new paragraph of logically connected ideas, and you're not conscious when you're dreaming. So the best your brain can produce is a book-like object with a bunch of hash on the pages.

Now to the special exception. If I've been really scrutinizing a book (the typical situation is an advanced technical book, where I have to read and think through each paragraph multiple times to understand it), shortly afterward that book or one much like it will appear in a dream, and I can actually read it. I don't know whether the text is sensible or an exact reproduction of what I'd been reading, but it's close enough that it seems real during the dream. Sometimes this can even happen before I fall completely asleep. An image of the book appears and I can read it out loud for a bit. This has never happened in the presence of another person so maybe it would just sound like gibberish, but it's close enough that it seems like a real book, versus the "generic" books that I know are fake even during the dream.

I wonder if certain "holy" texts or pseudo-academic papers of the type you see in modern literary criticism were produced in such a semiconscious state, after the author had been intensely studying similar religious or academic texts. For that matter I wonder if the normal writing process is not wholly unrelated to this "book-imitation" process your brain can do in a dream. I can certainly write about things I have no actual knowledge of, but in a way that is better than gibberish. The key problem in hermolinguistics may be described as one of scale. Many researchers claim that scale is at best an ephemeral artifact, but clearly, structure cannot be imposed without sizing of some sort. Each substructure can, likewise, be subjected to a process of subconscious or semiconscious scaling. See, I did it just there. Maybe I'm still doing it now.  How do I know when I'm doing it and when I'm not?!...

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Are We Headed For War?

I used to think historical events could be explained by the personalities of "great men." It's probably a byproduct of the way history is taught in school. For example, the pat explanation for the American Revolution is that Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, etc. loved liberty and made it happen. I never stopped to consider that liberty-loving people have lived in every age and place, but can only put their ideas into action when other factors out of their control happen to line up.

Generational trends, meaning changes in the collective personality of a population that occur over the scale of several decades, are one of those historical forces that do not move according to the desires of a few "great men." Generational trends used to be commonly discussed, but most historians today only care about race and gender as drivers of history.

The runup to the Civil War was dominated by the Transcendental Generation. The Transcendentals came of age during the boring 1820s, the so-called Era of Good Feeling. Without external events to react to, the young Transcendentals turned to perfecting themselves from the inside.

The Transcendentals were intuitionists. They believed you should just make up your mind about things, and then defend your opinions rigidly against such inconveniences as tradition, reason, the opinions of other people, and science. An important feature of the Transcendentals was that it was not enough to simply march to the beat of your own drum - it was important to live in a community where everyone else marched to the beat of that same drum. I'm caricaturing here, but you can draw your own conclusions from a few historical examples.

When John Humphrey Noyes conjured a variety of strange sexual rules in the 1840s, he didn't just go around giving speeches about them. He started his own town, the Oneida Community, in which these rules would be law. The Brook Farm community allowed people to do whatever type of work they wanted and still receive equal pay. The Fruitlands people shunned hot baths and drank only water. None of these ideas worked for very long, but that wasn't the point. The point was, you drew morals from deep down, then demanded that they be law.

As applied to private conduct, Transcendentalism looked like harmless eccentricity. And it had a universal brotherhood theme. Here's Emerson in 1841 bursting with love for friend and stranger alike:

We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken.  Maugre all the selfishness that chills like east winds the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eye-beams. The heart knoweth.

But when rationality is rejected, compromise is impossible. This inevitably drew Transcendentals out of their inner perfectionism to meet the great political and moral question of the day, slavery. The Transcendentals offered the harshest criticism of the Compromisers who kept the nation together through the 1850s. For the most part the Transcendentals came to believe slavery was the most important moral wrong of the day, and if it took war to end it, then so be it. Emerson sounds positively pacifist in the quote above, but listen to him in 1860:

Civil war, national bankruptcy, or revolution, [are] more rich in the central tones than languid years of prosperity.

But I'm talking about the Transcendentals as a complete generation, not just the adherents of a philosophy out of Harvard. The Transcendental generation of the South said that slavery was not merely an economic arrangement, but, guess what, a moral imperative. Here is John C. Calhoun in 1837:

Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.

Conventional histories tell us that the special nature and urgency of the slavery issue, abetted by increasing cotton prices, made civil war inevitable. But cotton production had been booming since the cotton gin was invented in 1793. Why did a resolution of slavery become urgent in the 1850s? Why did war come in 1860 and not 1800?  To answer that, we have to look at generational changes in mood. Heading into the 1860s, a generation came to power that would not compromise. They thirsted for a final and total resolution, got the war they wanted, and then largely departed from public life. As soon as the war was over, the younger generation began undoing the Transcendentals' resolution, with the Jim Crow system enforced in the South and tolerated by the North.

The Baby Boomers have almost perfectly recapitulated the evolution of the Transcendentals from gentle philosophizers to fire-breathing warmongers. Like the Transcendentals, the Boomers came of age during the culturally sterile 1950s. Their parents doted on them in new, child-centered suburbs. And like the Transcendentals, the Boomers came to detest the very stability and calm their war-scarred parents and grandparents had offered. They searched for the inner demons and demanded everyone else join them, or at least honor their struggles. The Boomers carried out their inner perfectionist program from 1964 to 1980, and after a lull, Act II may be upon us.

If the Boomers are the new Transcendentals, what is going to be their galvanizing issue, their slavery? I think it could be globalization, or the financialized economy, or whatever you want to call it. (It'll have a name in fifty years.) The Boomer generational personality wants a final, climactic resolution of something, and this may be it. They auditioned one thing, the Vietnam-era draft, but that was mainly an issue for the young.  The economy affects everyone. The Boomers may finally have their cause.

On one side, you have the Boomer Donald Trump, who is a pragmatist (not a Boomer characteristic) but also carries the classic Boomer/Transcendentalist personality of apocalyptic rhetoric, disdain for custom, and a resistance to analysis. On the other side, you have the Washington establishment, largely a creation of Boomer presidents Clinton and Bush, with its consensus of globalized, neoliberal economics and military interventionism, and most importantly, its institutionalized deformation of what is allowed to be debated (leave trade deals to the experts, but please do wear yourselves out arguing over transgender bathrooms.) Are we headed for war? I would look for the withering away of compromiser voices in Congress. I would look for a sustained, calculated urgency, the drumbeats like the Southern secessionist conventions of 1860 and Lincoln's refusal to yield federal property to the seceding states.  Finally, I would look for acts of violent resistance like the Harper's Ferry raid.

Other American generations have driven us to war. The generational theorists call them "prophet" generations. When the next younger generation (always a less ideological, more pragmatic, but more passive generation) is at least assertive enough to restrain the prophet generation from its excesses, the outcome is positive. An example is World War II, when the prophet generation of that time, the one of FDR and Douglas Mac Arthur, was restrained by the next youngest generation, the "Lost Generation" of Patton and Eisenhower. Today's equivalent of that younger, more practical generation is my own, Generation X. We are a hardened, cynical, sometimes selfish bunch. Are we up to the task that fate may be about to dump in our lap?

Sunday, April 9, 2017


Caponata is a Sicilian version of ratatouille.  Sicily was ruled by the House of Bourbon at various times during the 1700s-1800s and the ultimate status symbol for an upper-class Sicilian was to have a French-trained chef. There are many influences in Sicilian food. In the east, where my great-grandparents were from, the food is not too different from the southern Italian mainland which is only a couple of miles across the Strait of Messina, but there was a Greek influence. Sicilian pizza is traditionally thick and rectangular like a flatbread and features aromatic sausage heavy on the fennel seeds. I'd eaten a lot of rectangular sausage pizzas before I ever saw a round one with pepperoni.

The ancient peasant foods of Sicily are the fish dishes and the many creative ways to use cheap vegetables like "cardoony" that we almost consider weeds today. Granita, gelato and a lot of the sweets, especially the ones with nuts and candied fruit, are from the times of Arab rule. The Arab influence is stronger in the west, towards Palermo. When potatoes and tomatoes came from the New World, they were incorporated immediately.  The Sicilian signature is contrasting combinations like sweet-and-sour, or even sweet-and-bitter, that can be hard to get used to. There's a salad of oranges and onions that I like but nobody else in my house can stand, so we never have it.

Caponata is very close to ratatouille but the Sicilian influence creeps in in the form of green olives and a little sugar. This recipe is from my great aunt Mary who was 100% Sicilian, born just a few years after her folks came to America. She died in 2013 at 94.

This is a really old picture of Aunt Mary - maybe from 1935 or so. My parents rented a house she owned when they were first married - we may have been living there when I was born, but I'm not sure.

2 Tbsp. olive oil [Aunt Mary didn't have to say this in her time, but avoid the really cheap olive oils that are out there today. Some of that stuff I bet is just canola with green dye in it. You can get good California or Italian olive oils for less than $10 a pint.]
Medium yellow onion sliced thinly
2 stalks celery sliced thinly [Non-classical suggestion: celery leaves add great flavor to a lot of things so you might chop up a few and put them in too.]
A big eggplant, diced, with the skin left on. [Try to get a young, shiny, solid-feeling, dense eggplant - they have fewer seeds and a milder taste. I got a really good one today - probably from Mexico this time of year. Some people will tell you that male eggplants have fewer seeds and can be identified by a certain shape of the end, but this is not true. Eggplants don't have a gender.]
8 oz can tomato sauce
14 oz can diced tomatoes, drained
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1-2 tsp. sugar
1/2 cup pitted green olives. [You can use a Sicilian olive called a castelveltrano, or just regular Spanish green olives]
2 Tbsp. capers

Saute the celery and onion in the oil about 5 minutes, until softened. Add the eggplant and saute another 2 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and tomatoes and let simmer under low-med heat, covered, for about 10 minutes. Add the vinegar, one tsp of sugar, the olives and capers, and let simmer another 10 minutes. The fussy cooking times have to do with getting the texture of the different ingredients right. Let cool and add salt, pepper and a little more sugar if you want, to taste. Then store it cold, overnight if you can. You would normally eat it at room temperature, as a starter or on bread, but it's OK to warm it a little.

Another famous Sicilian recipe is braciole ("brazhool" in dialect.) I'll do that one in a future post, but it's so typically Sicilian, it's good illustration of what I wrote above. In Sicily (and much of Italy for that matter) most people could afford very little meat, and what there was, was bad.  So they took a tough old piece of beef, sliced it thin, and rolled and stuffed it with chopped-up boiled egg, salami, cheese, and - yes - raisins.  You would eat it like a meatball or sausage link, with spaghetti. A couple hours simmering in sauce and it tastes like high-class food.