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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Sex study roundup

Women rated the smell of undershirts of men with highly symmetrical faces as more attractive than those of men with more asymmetrical faces--even when they said they couldn't consciously smell anything at all. No wonder then that very symmetrical men have more sexual partners than their asymmetrical buddies.

Meanwhile, women smell better to men during their most fertile days of the month. Since, in the first world at least, getting your period may soon be a thing of the past, perhaps (straight) women who don't take the menstruation-suppressing drugs will have a pheremonal edge?

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Folksinger Joe Glazer dead at 88

A Times obituary from last week:
Joe Glazer, the singer-songwriter known as Labor’s Troubador, who played cowboy tunes on a $5.95 mail-order guitar as a boy in the Bronx, then sang songs of solidarity on picket lines and union halls and once on the White House lawn, died on Tuesday at his home in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 88.

...

Mr. Glazer, who called himself “an agitator for all good causes,” recorded more than 30 albums, wrote a book about labor music, recorded the songs of others and helped recruit a new generation of protest singers.

In 1950, Mr. Glazer and the Elm City Four were the first to record a version of the anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome,” according to many sources. His version of the song (originally a folk song and then a Baptist hymn before he helped popularize it as a labor union theme) began “I Will Overcome,” Mrs. Glazer said.

...

He joined the Kennedy administration in 1961 as a labor information officer for the United States Information Agency, partly because he admired its head, Edward R. Murrow. In addition to explaining America’s current events to foreigners, he was frequently sent to foreign countries to sing protest songs.

Mr. Glazer resigned from the agency after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan and soon began composing songs, like “Jellybean Blues,” satirizing the new president.

“Protest songs use humor, they tell about terrible conditions, but you still have to be able to laugh and sing and tell a joke,” he told The Times in 1981. “You know, that’s a very important thing — life goes on.”

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Blogger Mike on Sat Sep 30, 05:19:00 PM:
During my formative years, my parents drove around with a tape of Joe Glazer singing old IWW songs. They had dubbed it from an old record, and I remember staring at the jacket for hours. It was red with a big powerful-looking dude staring out from the cover. My favorite song was "Halleujah I'm a bum."
 

Little Miss Sunshine

I'm recommending Alix Ohlin's novel The Missing Person, but I should note my possible bias. The novel is kind of like my life in an alternate universe: the narrator is a graduate student in New York who returns home to Albuquerque to find her ecoterrorist younger brother. My brother is no ecoterrorist, but he's very handy with a survival knife. I love to read books set in Albuquerque. Eventually, I'll start my Lois Duncan retrospective series on this blog and point out all the familiar locations that made me more tolerant of (nay, obsessed with) astral projection, witches, and anti-feminism in those pre-teen classics.

When my friends visited New York this summer, we went to see Little Miss Sunshine and spent most of the movie whispering about whether the route from Albuquerque to southern California made sense. We were convinced that there was a sign for Madrid, New Mexico in one scene, but there are two problems with that location: a) Madrid isn't on the way to anywhere but Madrid (or Santa Fe if you're taking the Turquoise Trail), and b) there were saguaro cacti in the background, and the Sonoran desert is in Arizona.

So The Missing Person was a little unnerving (unsurprisingly, there were a couple of scenes in Little Miss Sunshine that also felt like scenes from my [contrived?] bizarro life as a young girl who wore big, round glasses, too). I was interested in Ohlin's play with an unreliable narrator, and I believed everything that happened in the book until the final thirty pages. I was ambivalent about how she tied the stories up in the end, but most of the book is very good.

Plus, sleazy motels figure into the narrative. I'm obsessed with the old motels with neon signs along Route 66. I set many of my short stories in them. My first house in Albuquerque was a couple of blocks from the infamous Aztec Motel, which was then one of the seedier places in Albuquerque but has since become a vibrant monument to kitsch. The revitalization of the Aztec is an anomaly, though, as most of the motels are more likely to be torn down than preserved. This is a web site with walking tours of Route 66 landmarks in Albuquerque that shows many of the old gas stations and motels in the area. I was amused by the note about my old school, Monte Vista Elementary, which was built in 1930 with space for adding eight more rooms. My classroom was a portable trailer for four of the five years of elementary school--not that there's anything wrong with that--and those portables aren't going anywhere.

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Blogger Jenny Davidson on Sat Sep 30, 10:18:00 PM:
I must confess that I loved Lois Duncan's books when I was a kid, they were definitely a guilty pleasure. The ones that stay with me most: "Summer of Fear" (saw a TV movie on this one on TV when I was in second grade and had nightmares for YEARS); "The Gift of Magic" (my favorite, less scary); "Ransom" (of course--kidnap fantasies galore); "Down a Dark Hall" (unless I am misremembering which one this is--boarding-school kids made to channel the dead composers/writers?). Genius!

Must read Alix's stuff, I am ashamed I haven't already--it sounds very good.
 

Monday, September 25, 2006

Personal prayer and a New Year sermon

I made the following "personal prayer"--a tradition at some reform synagogues where congregation members speak about their personal experiences with religion--at Rosh Hashanah this weekend, at my family temple, Beth El in Sudbury, Mass.:
Two years ago, a few months before my twenty-fifth birthday, I noticed a lump in one of my testicles, which turned out to be cancer. I had an easier treatment than most others who go through cancer, but it still involved surgery and weeks of unpleasant radiation. Luckily I had the support of friends and family, and a job that provided health insurance. Shortly after I turned twenty-five, I had a cautious but clean bill of health.

Several times since that ordeal, friends have asked me what wisdom I gained by facing a threat to my life and overcoming it. I haven't known what to tell them. It didn't feel like I gained insight, just that I was scared and propelled along by events beyond my control.

I want to tell them I have figured something out. I want to be able to give something back in exchange for their support. And shouldn't I have learned something? After all, in another age or another place today, I would likely have died. Shouldn't I cherish my life as a second chance, emerge with perspective and know how to live life to its fullest? Besides, I threw up just about every day for a month; I think I deserve something in return.

At times, I can't help but wonder if someone else would be doing more with this second chance. But when I look back over the choices I've made in the last two years, I do see some brave ones. A year ago, I left a comfortable job to go and work for a year in former Soviet Georgia. That wasn't an easy move to make. And I'm trying now to find a job that's what I really want to do, not just a stopgap. That's not easy either.

It doesn't seem to me that I've made these decisions just because I'm aware of the precariousness of my own life. But maybe there's something more subtle at work. My parents tell me that only a generation ago, no one would speak openly about a friend or family member having cancer. I imagine that part of the reason was people didn't like to remind each other of their own mortality.

Maybe that's why I feel the impulse to report back good news about life, at least my life. I know I'm not duty-bound to do that. But when I think about it, it's not a bad job to be stuck with. Why not try?

So here are some things that have been getting clearer to me, whether it's because of cancer or living abroad or just getting older.

No one lives life to its fullest every day, whatever that means. It's enough just to remind ourselves of that idea now and then. Revelation might be real, but it grows quietly and slowly. Experiences we've all but forgotten mature in the background and come in handy when relevant. If people do communicate it to each other, it's not as a sudden unveiling but by working in whatever perspective we've built up into our daily interactions.

Jacob's ladder works for me as a metaphor for this: there's a lot of rungs. I didn't wake up suddenly at the top. But being asked if I did at least made me realize I'd already climbed a few of them.
After the service, lots of other congregants came over and introduced themselves, and quite a few of them worked in mention of their eligible bachelorette daughters. I have to clue my little brother in: the temple is a goldmine!

In a sermon, our rabbi told of a hermit who lived in the hills in Minnesota, who farmed all day and played his violin in the evening. It got so out of tune over the years that he had to stop, and in desperation he walked miles to a post office and mailed a letter to the local NPR station asking them for help. One Sunday, during the news, the newscaster announced that they were going to help him tune his violin, and played an A on the air. Point? The shofar, the ram's horn that is sounded during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, is like that A: it is a call to us to reset our grudges and expectations, to release our preoccupations and come back into tune.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Letter to the Times: US Gov't record ain't pretty

Letter to the NY Times:
To the Editor:

Two pieces in today's Times understate the spottiness of the US government's record regarding civil liberties and human rights.

First, in "While Nixon Campaigned, the FBI Watched John Lennon" (Editorial Observer, Sept. 21), Adam Cohen mentions the "many domestic spying abuses of the 1960s and 1970s--including the wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr." But wiretapping was the least of the spying abuses King suffered. As historian Taylor Branch has documented and as the Boston Globe mentioned in an editorial on King's birthday this year, the FBI also installed microphones in King's hotel rooms, recorded his extramarital affairs and sent copies of the tapes to the Kings, along with a note demanding he commit suicide or else his "filthy, abnormal fraudulent self [would be] bared to the nation."

And in "Chile Seeks US Files on 1976 Assassination" (news article, Sept. 21), Larry Rohter writes that the US investigation of a killing likely ordered by General Pinochet is "politically delicate" here because past Republican administrations "supported the Pinochet dictatorship as a bulwark against leftist encroachment in Latin America". It's worse than that. Documents the Clinton administration released in 1999 reveal, among other damning evidence, that when even Henry Kissinger's cherry-picked US ambassador to Chile complained of Pinochet's atrocities, the then-Secretary of State wrote back "Cut out the political science lectures."

Clearly, the United States government's record on civil liberties and human rights has been at times not merely a case of overstepping bounds, but of willful abuse.

Ben Wheeler
Brooklyn, NY
September 20, 2006

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

In honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day...

My friends made a short film, Pirates vs. Ninjas, a couple of years ago. Today, in honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day, they are the featured pirates on Yahoo's home page from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. EST. It's funny, and if you miss them on Yahoo, you can always watch it on YouTube.

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Blogger Meg Lyman on Tue Sep 19, 02:00:00 PM:
That's some quality action. Fighting, romance, more fighting... What more could you ask for?!
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Sep 21, 08:49:00 AM:
It's the pirate calisthenics that make it art.
 

Friday, September 15, 2006

As long as I ain't got no job, I might as well make some 10-hour Gumbo

Passing through the Grand Army Plaza farmers' market the other day, I noticed a huge table of organic okra. I thought, "I'm unemployed and have lots of time to kill. Why not make a little gumbo?"

Foolish, foolish man.

Three days of work later, it's done. It's fucking tasty, but is it worth the 10-odd hours I spent making it?

I worked with a recipe I derived from Chuck Taggart's gumbo recipe. He is of the opinion that 1) you can't take shortcuts with the stock -- you've got to make it from scratch, and it should cook for the better part of a day; and 2) you need to buy shrimp with the heads on, to use the heads in the stock. He writes:
Shrimp heads impart a wonderful flavor to the stock, and it just ain't the same as a real New Orleans gumbo without them. Do whatever you have to do. In many cities you'll have better luck at Asian seafood markets.
I got mine in Chinatown, and I can swear by the results.

The finished product
The word "gumbo", by the way, has a great history. American Heritage says the word for okra was gombo in Louisiana French, while Wikipedia says the word was gumbo in the Charleston, South Carolina dialect Gullah. These words were brought into new world Creoles by Western and Southern Africans who spoke languages from the massive Bantu system of connected tongues, where the Tshiluba word ki-ngumbo continues to mean okra today. (In Puerto Rico, and other Carribean Spanish Islands, guingambó is the word for okra.) Since "gumbo" literally means "okra", some insist that a gumbo made with a thickener other than okra--such as filé powder (made from mildly carcinogenic sassafras leaves) or just a roux--is not a proper gumbo, but just a stew.

Day 1

After buying about two pounds of okra, I get some peppers, celery and tomatoes, and notice along the way that New York State gives coupons for farmers' markets to poor families as part of WIC, or whatever succeeded AFDC. So someone in the state legislature must be competent. (I'm bitter because all of the candidates I supported in the primaries on Tuesday lost.)

Then I go for my big run, to Chinatown. On Mulberry, bout a block South of Canal, there is a Chinese butchery and grocery store that sells goodies like loose chicken bones and shrimp with heads. I get four pounds of chicken legs and thighs and two pounds of shrimp, but they are out of bones, so I pick up a four-pound pack of drumsticks from Pathmark--engineered meat at its cheapest, and enough extra bones to make up for the missing ones. The bones are crucial because they give your chicken stock a deep base flavor; they also thicken it, to the point that when you put the stock in the fridge, it will reach the consistency of Jell-o.

Chinatown also has the secret ingredient of cheap stock--the world's largest vegetables. They sell carrots the size of daschunds and onions Manute Bol couldn't palm for around 60 cents a pound. I hobble onto the subway, doubled over with about 15 pounds of groceries and with a bag of Chinese mini-cakes in one hand, which is obligatory when visiting Chinatown.

I also grab some Chorizo sausage at Pathmark--one of Chuck Taggart's suggestions is to have chicken, seafood and sausage in the gumbo, and it won't be easy to find real Andouille sausage.

Day 2

To start the stock, I roast the chicken for half an hour in the oven, eatthe crispy skin off the thighs, pull off about half the meat and put the bones and ligaments into boiling water in a huge lobster pot. Roasting makes the flavor better and makes it easy to separate meat from bone.

I crack a few peppercorns and roast them without oil in a pan. Then I chop up the garlic, onions, carrots and celery (saving half the celery, garlic and onions to go in the gumbo later) and sautee them in olive oil with spices--oregano, tarragon, thyme, bay leaves, and salt--in the pan with the peppercorns. I add some scallions and parsley at the end and throw it all into the pot. I have a few heads of broccoli, a partially-used onion, and some chives handy, so those go in too. Pretty much any vegetable handy will improve a stock, so long as it's not bitter like radish or tasteless like cucumber.

Then I start on the shrimp, cutting off the heads, snapping off the tails (if you snap right, half the shell comes off with it), and chucking the shells. I throw heads, tails and shells into the stock, and save the meat for later. (Most people de-vein the shrimp, but I think that's a waste of time, and I need all the time I could save.)

The whole thing cooks for about four hours, simmering on low heat. Then I drain all the stuff off using a colander and cheesecloth--in the past I just used paper towels, but they drain way too slow--and then begin one of the really tedious processes--pulling chicken meat off of the bones to go in the gumbo tomorrow. This meat has lost much of its flavor, but it's still worth saving for the texture, even though separating meat from ligament and fat is truly joyless.

To finish off the stock, I put it back on to boil for another hour or two to reduce and concentrate it, which makes it tastier, easier to balance with other liquids, and easier to store. Then I let it cool and put it in the fridge. (Ideally, you should put the pot in a larger pot of ice water first to cool it quickly so it spends less time in the bacteria-friendly range of 150-50 degrees, but this has never seemed practical.) It has to cool overnight so that the fat will separate completely from the stock.

Day 3

I take out the now jiggly stock and spoon off the fat. (Another reason to use lots of chicken bones and boil for hours: the natural gelatin in the stock makes it separate cleanly from the fat, so it's easy to roll the fat off of it.)

Some of the stock I freeze for use in future concoctions; back on the burner with the rest, with a few bay leaves to release flavor as it cooked.

To thicken the gumbo and make it tacky, I next make a New Orleans-style dark roux. As per Taggart's instructions, I go for a massive roux with about a cup of flour and almost as much fat (by using equal amounts olive oil and butter). On medium heat, I slowly mix the flour into the fat, stirring constantly to make it even and to keep it from burning. Then I let it cook for another half hour, getting more and more brown and releasing a deep nutty flavor I never knew a roux could have. According to Taggart, cooking a roux this long diminishes its thickening power, which is the only way such a huge amount of roux could avoid turning the gumbo into glue. Once it hits the color of coffee, in it goes.

By the way, Taggart warns: "They don't call roux 'Cajun napalm' for nothing. Don't let any splatter on you, or you'll get a nasty burn." I catch a microscopic splatter, and somehow this stuff burns worse than hot oil.

I start the rice on the side. The secret to fluffy rice, I have learned, is to rinse it a lot before cooking, undercook it a tiny bit, and refrigerate it once it's done.

I chop up the chorizo and put that in the gumbo. Then I go through the chicken one last time and pull off cartilage, skin and fat I'd missed earlier (I swear these things continued to grow overnight) and toss the meat in.

I chop the peppers and sautee them with yesterday's leftover garlic, onions and celery until good and brown, and toss them in. I slice the tomatoes, scallions and okra but save them for later, since they cook so quickly. Okra is slimier the more you slice it and cook it, so you can control the gumminess of the gumbo to some degree by how thinly and how early you add the okra.

Now I season to taste, with salt, pepper, hot sauce, a little fresh tarragon and rosemary.

Finally, I throw in the shrimp, scallions, tomatoes, and okra, give it another ten minutes, and kill the heat. It's finished.

At this point I realize that this has been a different project than anything else I've ever cooked. Normally, if I ruin a dish, it's disappointing. But ruining this would be a travesty--a waste of ten hours of my life, not to mention forty dollars of ingredients.

Has it been worth it, when I could have instead just bought a carton of chicken stock, a pound of shelled shrimp, chopped some okra, onions, and garlic, and had something pretty tasty in its own right in about an hour? I make myself a bowl, then another, then another. I am starting to feel desperate that there is no one around to enjoy it--my girlfriend is off getting drunk with film-school buddies--but then our roommate Priya comes home, and she and her boyfriend gobble some down to high praise. Priya says it all: "Anytime you want to spend three days making that, it's fine with me."

Next time, I'd get to Chinatown early enough to score a few pounds of chicken bones, and start the vegetables earlier in the gumbo so the celery can cook all the way -- it was still a little too crunchy for my taste.

Here's the recipe in a nutshell:

For the stock:
  • chicken parts - six or so pounds of bones, legs, whatever
  • shrimp with heads - couple pounds
  • onions - couple pounds
  • celery - couple pounds
  • carrots - couple pounds
  • garlic - one whole head
  • peppercorns - spoonful
  • bay leaves
  • spices - fresh if you can, dried otherwise
    • thyme
    • tarragon
    • oregano
    • basil
    • rosemary
  1. Put a very large pot on with water to boil. Make sure there's always enough water to cover all the stuff in the pot.
  2. Add some bay leaves.
  3. Roast the chicken in the oven, then cool and pull off most of the meat. Put the bones in the pot, put the meat aside to cool more.
  4. Chop the vegetables. Refrigerate half the celery and onions and about 1/3 of the garlic for later.
  5. Crack the peppercorns by pounding them with something (your fist on the side of a wide knife works well, or the bottom of mug) and roast them without oil on a skillet.
  6. In same skillet, sautee the vegetables with olive oil, spices and a little salt until brown at edges. Add to pot.
  7. Shuck shrimp of heads, tails, and shells. Put these in pot, put shrimp in fridge.
  8. Let the stock boil on low for several hours--the longer the better.
  9. Strain the stock through cheesecloth and pick out chicken meat. Put all the chicken meat in the fridge.
  10. Boil down the stock for another hour or two.
  11. Put the stock in the fridge overnight.
  12. The next day, skim the fat off the top.
For the gumbo:
  • chicken meat put aside when making stock
  • onions put aside when making stock
  • garlic put aside when making stock
  • celery put aside when making stock
  • sausage (Andouille if possible, or Chorizo or other)
  • okra - couple pounds
  • tomatoes - couple pounds
  • peppers - couple pounds
  • scallions - one bunch
  • cup or so of flour
  • 3/4 cup or so of fat (olive oil or butter or both, whatever porportions you like)
  • more bay leaves
  • parsley
  • hot sauce
  • rice
  1. Put stock on low heat with a few bay leaves and a cup of water.
  2. Slice vegetables. Separate the peppers from the okra, tomatoes and scallions.
  3. Sautee yesterday's vegetables with the peppers until brown at edges and add to stock.
  4. Make the roux by heating the oil, then slowly mixing in the flour so that the mixture stays even and doesn't lump. Cook on medium over the next half hour until dark brown, then add to pot.
  5. Start the rice. When done, drain and refrigerate.
  6. Slice the sausage and add to pot.
  7. Add the chicken from yesterday, tearing into bite-sized pieces and making sure there are no ligaments or fat left.
  8. Spend some time seasoning with salt, pepper, hot sauce, and other spices.
  9. Add the shrimp.
  10. Add the okra, tomatoes and scallions.
  11. Serve over rice.
This recipe made me about eight quarts of gumbo; I froze two and have to eat the rest in the next week, so Alice, give me a call and come over.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Feb 20, 08:06:00 AM:
As a puertorrican I can tell you that here the most common word for okra is not guingambó but quimbombó.
 
Blogger NecrochildK on Tue Sep 16, 09:20:00 AM:
WHO on earth said that making gumbo with a roux is not real gumbo?! THat's how everyone I know born and raised in Acadiana make it, even when using okra!
 
Blogger NecrochildK on Tue Sep 16, 09:22:00 AM:
Not to mention, not to be rude, but by that picture, you're serving it wrong. It should be a stewlike consistancy, not served up like rice and gravy.
 

Thursday, September 14, 2006

How Ann Richards Got to Be Governor of Texas

In memory of Ann Richards, here's an excerpt from Molly Ivins' essay, "How Ann Richards Got to Be Governor of Texas," (from Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?):
Interestingly enough, one of Williams's ads showed Ann Richards at the political highlight of her career, making the keynote address to the Democratic Convention in 1988, specifically, the famous line on President Bush: "Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth." The ad ran in August, at the start of the Persian Gulf crisis, when patriotism was at flood tide and criticizing the president was tantamount to treason. But I was astonished by how many people objected to that line and held it against Richards throughout the campaign. The line itself is already classic and will be used in every anthology of political humor published hereafter. Yet a surprising number of men are alamred by the thought of a witty woman. They think of women's wit as sarcastic, cutting, "ball-busting": it was one of the unstated themes of the campaign and one reason why Ann Richards didn't say a single funny thing during the whole show. Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist once asked a group of women at a univeristy why they felt threatened by men. The women said they were afraid of being beaten, raped, or killed by men. She tehn asked a group of men why they felt threatened by women. They said they were afraid women would laugh at them.

You know, I'm skeptical of anecdotes like the one Ivins includes from the Atwood speech--I want to know how the question was framed, what the context was, etc.?--but it works in the rest of the essay, which includes this note about the tone of the attack ads in the 1990 Texas gubernatorial race between Richards and Clayton Williams, a rancher who "believed the world simple," writes Ivins:
One of his most brilliant ad series would give some simple-minded, tough-talk answer to a complex problem and then close with, "And if they tell you it can't be done, you tell them they haven't met Clayton Williams yet." If they'd just shut him up in a box for the duration of the campain, he'd be governor today.

In late March, he invited the press corp out to his ranch for roundup. They got bad weather. Sitting around the campfire with three male reporters, Williams opined, "Bad weather's like rape: as long as it's inevitable, you might as well just lie back and enjoy it." Bubba, the shorthand we use to denore the average, stereotypical Texan, has been using that line for years. But it was Williams's fate in the campaign to keep unerringly finding that fault line between the way things have always been in Texas and the way things are getting to be. Richards shrewdly picked up on the difference with her endlessly reiterated slogan about "the New Texas." Claytie Williams is Old Texas to the bone.

This is a particularly nice memorial to her from the Austin American Statesman.

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Blogger NecrochildK on Tue Sep 16, 09:09:00 AM:
Way way too much rice, friend! lol Your gumbo should be somewhat soupy, more like a stew consistancy, not rice and gravylike.