Enjoyed seeing several folks yesterday we haven’t seen in a while. Since my birthday is a federal holiday this year, I plan to keep celebrating all weekend. But this was a good start. 😉
Sat in a bookstore over the weekend and read a large portion of the book Radium Girls. These factory women went from being some of the highest paid workers in the 1910-20s to ravaged by radium poisoning from their work. Though the companies fought hard to deny it, a few remaining (dying) “radium girls” sued the companies and won – these were landmark cases in establishing workers’ rights to sue for occupational diseases. The book is a rapid read and leans more toward entertainment-style writing rather than hard science, but Moore unpacks the women’s story well. Check it out next time you’re in a bookstore.
The Radium Girls were so contaminated that if you stood over their graves today with a Geiger counter, the radiation levels would still cause the needles to jump more than 80 years later. They were small-town girls from New Jersey who had been hired by a local factory to paint the clock faces of luminous dials.
“Could it be that this all of this op-ed commentary about pop culture serves more to fill our empty places—those places deep within us that desire to make and say and express but are completely disengaged within the context of the kind of lives most of us live as consumers, not makers. Have we all become so obsessed with commentary and critique because actually making and creating is just too damn hard?”
Supposedly Mark Twain said something like, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure rhymes,” and with that in mind, I was struck by the quality of book recommendations in this conversation I had with a Facebook friend today.
My friend, who does social media under the name “Theo Logos,” is a voracious reader – well outpacing anything I could hope for in my paltry Goodreads goals for the year – and our conversation this morning about Mark Twain’s disdain for Teddy Roosevelt turned into an outline for what would seem to be an incredible college course (or personal reading journey) through turn of the century American imperialism.
While Trump’s policy speeches have turned from American intervention abroad toward an inward focus on insular defense (buttressed by a jump in nationalistic rationale), I think Trump’s underlying view of the world remains about as imperialistic (might I say even jingoistic?) as anything Americans saw from their leaders in the late 1800s.
Few history courses teach high schoolers or college students about the horrors of the Philippine war – an assault by America against Philippine sovereignty justified by the US protecting its own interests. Yet that is one reason why Mark Twain looked upon his own age with horror. American leaders (like Teddy Roosevelt) who occupy a nostalgic corner in my brain were the men who offended Twain the most because of their policies and aims.
As soon as we were old enough to walk by ourselves as a nation, the US has used its might (later buoyed by the decimation of Europe and parts of Asia in World War II) to further our agenda in the world. Often this has resulted in geopolitical disaster. Consider the aftermath of the US overthrowing democratically elected governments in the 1950s and 1960s because we were afraid those nations would align themselves with the USSR. We installed fascists and dictators into places like Argentina, Chile, and Iran so that we could control them. Usually, that ended poorly. Sometimes it created a horrific mess leading to disasters like the rise of ISIS. We need to learn from past mistakes, and studying the roots of American imperialism offers much.
Plus, looking at history through the eyes of literature and culture makes history come alive, and offers readers/students a sense of context for the biting satire that Twain and others produced during this rough and tumble age in American politics.
So I’d like to put this out here in case any history teachers want to take up the challenge to create a course about the way American imperialism rhymes with current political discourse about defense spending and immigration restrictions.
We need to learn history’s lessons so we can stop repeating them, a little bit louder and a little bit worse.
Below the screenshots, I will link out to the books and articles mentioned here.
Short Story: The War Prayer (Twain)
Book: The True Flag; Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, by Stephen Kinzer (Amazon)
Book: The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism, by Mark Zwonitzer (Amazon)
Book: The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898, by Evan Thomas (Amazon)
Novel: Empire, by Gore Vidal (Amazon)
One way to understand the past is to embrace a well-written fictional retelling. Vidal’s incarnation of the Gilded Age brings home this age of excess.
And for more, you can visit Theo’s full shelf of books on American Imperialism at his Goodreads feed (Goodreads)
I’ve been largely silent for most of the past several months both here and in much of social media. One part of that reticence flows from my growing feeling that I don’t have anything to say that’s worth taking your time and attention to read. That’s a complex set of feelings and thoughts which I will not take time to unpack here.
But for the past 2 months or so, the pall of the 2016 election has hung over my mind and contributed to my unwillingness to write.
The last time I gave much of a damn about politics, it was 1988 and I was a middle schooler fascinated by the race between HW Bush and Dukakis. I wrote a fun ditty making fun of some of Dukakis’s positions and mailed it to Vice President Bush. Probably because I was a kid, his office nicely responded on official White House stationery to thank me for the letter, and I stored the signed letter in my photo album for safekeeping. I followed politics voraciously from 1987-1988, then dropped it. I’m not really sure if it was just adolescent ADD or a wise-beyond-my-years intuition that politics is primarily bullshit and power-mongering, two things I hate more than nearly anything else.
I grew up in a household of former Democrats who found themselves voting Republican due to social issues, where soft racism was de rigueur but not supported by an ideology of hate to give it root. The Gulf War was good, for it was a show of American might; Bill Clinton was a lying scoundrel. As I moved into college, where Republican policy was equivalent to God’s own morality, Bill Clinton advanced to the status of Anti-Christ and “God’s judgment on America.” I remember Dr Bob in chapel exhorting us on the eve of the 1996 election to beseech God to spare America from having to endure four more years of that heathen in charge. God apparently didn’t see fit to intervene, or maybe He too was bored to tears by Bob Dole and decided to just let things run their course. Either way, the economy prospered during Clinton’s second term, Clinton shocked everyone with brazen denial of oral sex in the Oval Office (I really hope they fumigate those rooms before the next President moves in, you know?), and America survived to endure the 2000 “hanging chad” election debacle. Regardless, I’d moved on.
I’ve spent my life in education, not politics, on purpose. I feel like i can get somewhere in education; maybe not in the realm of policy (who the hell thought this assessment-driven disaster was a good direction for public education?!) but at least in individual lives.
For years I’ve avoided the political news cycle other than to stay informed as a citizen. I’ve written the occasional email to my representatives, usually for local or state issues, and watched the national circus from the sidelines. If America were to follow Britain’s example and limit the campaign season to 3 months, I’d cry with joy. This circus is shameful, self-aggrandizing. It’s everything that’s the worst of America’s adolescent age.
But Trump? this is a new level of horror. To watch a boorish, rude, egocentric, power-hungry narcissist step into the office of President and thrash about with his base appeals to the lowest common denominator of American culture … I can’t even.
I literally. can’t. even.
How do we live in the era of “Can’t Even”? That’s been the thought simmering in the back of my mind these past several weeks. A friend on Facebook added me to his “Resist45” Facebook group for local community organization and resistance to destructive Trumpism. Other than standing on a corner with a sign, nobody there has brought forward a concrete plan for change, for taking those baby steps out of my comfortable house into my neighborhood to “work for change.”
But this posture of fear and disgust and indifference is ultimately a lack of faith on my part. I was thinking today, on this day when we celebrate the legacy of MLK Jr and his fearless pursuit of justice at a time when the prevailing culture had little stomach for it, that the people of God have usually lived in the Time Of Can’t Even. A remnant of godly Israelites wept by the shores of Babylon and sang David’s psalms with little hope of seeing their homeland again. The Romans, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Philistines all stomped through the land where the believers in Yahweh lived, and God’s counsel to them was never to despair. How dare I simmer in my own discontent?
Jesus came preaching that His Kingdom is not of this world. But understand: The heavenly reality of God’s rule does not absolve us from earthly work. Instead, it grounds us in a deeper foundation of Justice whose name is also Yahweh-Yireh, the God Who Provides. We serve El – Roi, the God Who Sees both Hagar, tormented and neglected by the man and woman who should have cared for her, as well as those whom we allow by our apathy to be eaten up by the powerful of this world in their pursuit of riches and glory.
There are no neutral decisions. Whether I get paper or plastic at BiLo affects the mountain of non-degradable trash sickening our planet. The choice forces me to consider the consequences of living in America’s “disposable” culture. I’m wasteful; I’m complacent. I buy more than I need. I buy clothes that could not be so cheap unless they were sewn in a sweatshop in Indonesia by people who’s lives are marked by misery and hunger and oppression.
And why am I even buying clothes? My closet is full, while my grandparents (and parents, when they were children) owned a mere handful of garments – so little that everything could fit in a “wardrobe” (if they owned one) with space for maybe 10 hangers and a few drawers. This consumption and capitalism of ours is foolishness, a chasing after wind. Go read Ecclesiastes. Even the king dies. What happens to everything he owns? A fool inherits it. It does him no good in Sheol, where he’s going.
I don’t know how I’m going to live in “Trump’s America.” The thought still turns my stomach, honestly. But to disengage, to indulge myself in the “can’t evens,” is faithless and cowardly.
A dear friend once commented that the Holy Spirit was challenging her on her addiction to peace, peace for herself at any cost. She was facing a difficult period with her sons and every day was a horrible battle of wills full of anger and fear and pain. In that context, no one could blame her for just trying to “keep the peace.” But that is where the Spirit pressed her. Doing what is best for others and for the Kingdom often requires sacrificing our peace, the longing we have to remain where things are comfortable and safe.
I do not know what it will look like for me to live in Trump’s America, but I’m confident that “loving my neighbor” will be more important than ever. And since “Grace always costs the giver,” I pray that I will have the courage to love. I invite you to challenge me, friends, to embody that sentiment in action, not mere words.
My daily work has regressed over the past several years from working in tangible ways with dozens of people in meaningful ways, to working with far fewer people in ways that hold less meaning for me personally.
It might be an unfair comparison, given the narcotic doses of meaning present in a classroom. Yes, teaching is both mundane and hard and at times genuinely rather dull – but most of the time, I found it deeply engaging, meaningful work. My life (and heart) was full of faces and souls for whom I could care and work. Delivering English lessons was valuable in itself, but what I loved was building relationships and watching students grow into flourishing adults.
My work at Erskine was interesting and creative and pushed me to develop parts of myself that hadn’t received much attention. But the circle of souls inscribed by my daily engagements was much smaller. Yes, I knew some students and even taught a class. But most of my labor fit within a single building alongside a handful of people.
Now my circle seems to be scribed even smaller. My office sits in my home. My students are connected to me through a phone line; I hear only their voices. It’s a mediated relationship – perfectly appropriate given that these are graduate students and practicing educators; they are not looking for a life coach; they are trying to earn a master’s degree. But the world is still smaller.
I’m thankful for my vocational journey over the past 5 years, but I’m unhappy that my life has contracted rather than expanded. It probably didn’t help that we are sailing the seas of Christendom looking for a new church home, another shrinking of community and reduction in meaningful work. I feel like a shadow of my former self.
I’m old enough to know that “this, too, shall pass.” We walk through narrow canyons as well as sunny fields.
But that doesn’t make the canyons any less narrow when you’re in them.
This is how I cook: I open up the refrigerator or pantry and say, “What’s here?” If there are enough building blocks to create a meal along the lines of something I’ve cooked before and enjoyed, problem solved.
This approach leads to occasional accidental delights (but mostly just decent supper food). Here are two that happened in my kitchen in the past month. See if you’re similarly inspired to experiment. 😉
I’ve been making chicken cacciatore since I started cooking (a few days after I got married), but I learned the recipe by watching my dad make it countless times for supper. It was easy, relatively quick, and cheap – all qualities that my dad prized in his culinary endeavors
Recipe: Dad’s Chicken Cacciatore
But the other day, as I eyed a small bag of orzo pasta I’d picked up at Trader Joe’s, I had an epiphany: What If I swapped out the rice I usually serve alongside cacciatore, and used the orzo instead?
The verdict: Delicious! I cooked the orzo pasta on the side and then throw the cooked orzo into the pot of cacciatore once it came out of the oven. However, I’m wondering if I should have cooked the orzo straight into the cacciatore so it would pick up more of those flavors. Dunno. May try that next time.
So last month, I made the most incredible pork roast thanks to this recipe from an Upstate cook:
Balsamic Beer-Braised Pork Roast, from She Wears Many Hats
It’s an amazing recipe. So easy; so incredibly flavorful.
I make two changes from her recipe. The first, I use rendered bacon fat (cook a couple pieces, pull out the bacon, use it for something else) to sear the pork roast in the first step. The additional smokiness of a high quality bacon adds incomparable depth of flavor. Goes without saying that you need to be using a good bacon here; I keep Trader Joe’s applewood smoked bacon in the frig at all times.
Second, once the pork roast had been seared but before adding the cooking liquid (beer et al), I deglaze the pan with some bourbon or sherry. Sometimes a little of both, in succession. Scrape up the brown bits and let the meat soak up some of the alcohol before continuing. Again, it’s a layer of flavor that makes a difference in the end.
When you’re done (follow the recipe), you have pork that just falls apart and shreds with no effort at all. It’s incredible as pulled pork sandwiches; you need no additional BBQ sauce.
But then…. there’s more magic to be had in the pot! You’ll need your favorite beef stew recipe – look it up on the Internet and pick up some cheap “stew beef” at the store on your next grocery run, along with carrots, potatoes, onion, celery, a box of beef broth, and either rice or big noodles or barley or whatever.
Let the drippings cool until the fat congeals on top. Stop being squeamish; this is part of life when cooking with meat. Scrape off and discard as much of the solid fat as you can, leaving behind the beer-broth and bits of pork from the earlier recipe.
Heat what’s left on medium in your Dutch oven till it’s going pretty hard and throw in all your chopped vegetables. If you did too good a job of removing fat, you might need to add a wee bit of olive oil or butter here. Meanwhile, brown your beef chunks in a skillet on the side and throw them in with the vegetables once they get brown on all sides. (The extra work is worth it – I promise.) Add your broth and seasonings, and throw the whole pot into the oven for an hour or more, till the potatoes are completely done and the beef is tender.
If you’re going to add rice or noodles it might be easier to cook those on the stovetop and then add them at the end.
The result: Your beef stew will have this magical depth of flavor, a savory-ness that I can’t ever get when I just “make beef stew,” no matter what seasonings I add. The leftovers from the pork bring so many good flavors to the party, but nothing clashes with the traditional beef stew vibe.
I’m committed now to always making the pork recipe before I make a regular beef stew. I’m not sure I can go back to the old way…. 😉
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