Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...
30 May, 2008
Three Days of Narrative Goodness
I'm in media res of three days full of good tales of excitement, drama, action, violence, and fresh fruit!
Last night brought the season finale of LOST. It was a two hour affair and I avoided spoilers, though it was tough. I spent a night earlier this week unable to fall asleep because my mind was preoccupied with an effort to link the moving of the island with the presence of the Black Rock so far inland. I'll go easy on the spoilers here, if I can. I thought it was great. There were some wonderfully visceral scenes such when Ben's paternal vengeance was loosed and it's always exciting to see what an orientation video will reveal.
While it's going to be a seven month wait for more LOST, season 2 of Wormwood will be downloading later today. (Read my interview with co-creator David Accampo here.) Xander's fate was left hanging at the end of season 1 and the whole town was imperiled by a rather nasty cult. Plus, being the gentleman that I am, I'm concerned for Sparrow. So Wormwood's return will most certainly help cushion the blow and steer my mind towards another mystery.
Come Saturday Doctor Who returns after a one week hiatus with "Silence in the Library" which looks to be a spookfest. Libraries are some of my favorite places and stories set in them have, at the very least, really cool settings going for them.
As long as I'm on the topic of stories, I should mention that I've started reading Darkwalker on Moonshae by R.A. Salvatore, the very first Forgotten Realms novel. Yeah, I know I made fun of my friends who read them earlier this week but I took the plunge anyway as I just wanted something mindless to read after finishing Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden.
The Cement Garden was good, if a bit disturbing. Imagine Lord of the Flies set in urban decay. Four siblings find themselves living alone at home after their parents die. Jack, the narrator, is a teenager and is dislocated from his family and those around him more generally. He doesn't particularly care for his siblings and his parents are cold and distant. His narrative portrays his father as a disciplinarian and one who mocks his children. Jack's mother warns him against every teenage boys main hobby – masturbation – though this doesn't stop him. Jack has no friends and no other relatives live nearby. Indeed, the whole family is portrayed as being alone – no neighbors and not close to the rest of the extended family.
In an attempt to sort of keep the family together, the kids decide to put their mother's corpse into a trunk in the basement and fill it with cement. (Father was already dead and buried.) Alone, the siblings forge bonds with one another, however tenuous. Julie, the eldest at 17 or so, starts dating a 23-year-old named Derek. At one point, he begins to smell the mother's body but the kids hem & haw and try to divert his attention. However, when Derek witnesses an incestuous moment between Jack and Julie, he is mortified and alerts the authorities. It's one thing for siblings to bond just as long as they don't bond too tightly.
Now, as for my foray into the world of Forgotten Realms novels, I'll admit that Darkwalker on Moonshae isn't too bad. Salvatore's writing style is quite enjoyable. He doesn't use 40 words when a few will do nor does he regale us with interminable family histories yet his prose is quite lively and descriptive.
I'm in the middle of the third chapter but I don't know how much more I can take. The story itself is generic stuff: big, bad meanie vs. forces of light & goodness; impetuous young prince and fair maiden; the rogue who seems to actually be a good person inside; the loveable big brute. That things are generally standard boilerplate isn't really a problem for me. What is a problem is that I just don't care all that much about any of characters nor about what is going to happen.
I'm going to try to stick it out but I make no promises.
Can you multitask? Try rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time. We all multitask everyday in different ways. So why do people, when confronted with a policy they don't like, suddenly accuse others of being incapable of addressing multiple issues?
If you read the "Voice of the People" section of this week's Cap Times, you can read a letter by one Tom Minser of Madison who works at a campus bar. He has noticed the police engage in "undercover sting" operations in attempts to bust underage drinkers. Mr. Minser is aghast at the MPD for enforcing the law: The problem I am baffled by is that at a time where [sic] there are two unsolved murders, the department has decided that instead of focusing on problem areas, they would rather find those two 20-year-olds with fake IDs.
Are the police unable to give due attention to the unidentified problem areas and yet enforce drinking laws? Where are these problem areas and how are they related to the murders? When past murders have been solved, were officers not policing taverns? I suspect that, if the sting operations had been taking place at another establishment besides the one at which Mr. Minser worked, he probably would not have written that letter.
And then there's the criticism of Alderwoman Marsha Rummel by the proprietor of Caffeinated Politics. Rummel seeks to expand the city ordinance which allows people in single family dwellings within the city limits to keep up to 4 hens. CP:
For Pete’s Sake! Let city alders do the real work that is needed in Madison and leave the chickens for the country folks.
"Real work" being things like "crime and water purity". Of course, when the council takes time to debate and vote on purely symbolic acts like recommending that Bush be impeached, CP has no problem with this - crime and water purity be damned! Why should we have to suffer with city wells going to shit and rampant crime just so CP can have his feel-good council resolution?
Is Ms. Rummel unable to push for expansion of the ordinance while also addressing CP's real work? Madison doesn't fall apart when the council votes to impeach Bush or take any of the other meaningless stands that it does; other city business gets done. Are Rummel and the council going to ignore all else until the fowl issue is disposed of? Water quality was one of her top concerns when she ran for office and I have no proof that it is no longer a priority. But, given her reputation, I suspect that it remains important to her.
I'll be moving into her district come August and am disappointed that her website hasn't been updated in well over a year and her page at the city website is woefully bereft of any useful information.
Both Isthmus and the Madison Beer Review have noted that local homebrewer Joe Walts is looking to open a brewpub that would go by the name RePublic. Walts has a blog where you can keep up with his progress and learn the ins and outs of starting a small business.
But there's other local brewing news afoot. I spent a wee bit of time at Bekee's party on Saturday night. Only a wee bit because a burrito I'd eaten earlier absolutely killed my stomach. I felt like Mr. Creosote and, had I eaten anything else no matter how wafer thin, I would have exploded. During my time there I chatted with my buddy Marv who is giddy with excitement at the impending release of Dungeons & Dragons V4 as well as another homebrewer ready to test the waters.
He approached me asking if I was the guy that wrote the blog. Since he was bigger than me, I denied everything. But The Dulcinea wouldn't let me escape. His name was Page (methinks it was – I was ill at the time so correct me if my memory is failing me here) and he said that, not only was he a Fearful Symmetries reader, but also that he was a homebrewer and was looking to startup a small business. Now, I hope what he told me wasn't proprietary info. After all, he was telling this to a blogger. (If I've erred, I'll no doubt hear about it as I'm sure we'll meet at the Malt House.) Page has designs on being the microest of microbrewers: he is soliciting interest from various local establishments in having him brew their house beer(s). Best of luck to him.
On a related note, I see that Sala Thai over on Fair Oaks has opened. Also, there's a new African restaurant on the horizon on Atwood. Methinks it's called Africana. I look forward to eating at both.
Word is that writer Steven Moffat is taking the helm of Doctor Who. He will be lead writer and executive producer. Moffat is responsible for some classics of the new series such as "Blink" and "The Empty Child". I believe he'll be taking over for the 2010 season. (N.B. - the 2009 season is to consist merely of 4 "specials".)
The current season took a break this past weekend but returns in 5 days with "Silence in the Library" which looks to be rather spooky and takes place in one of my favorite places. The BBC has also released a mid-season trailer which gives a preview of what's to come.
Back in my grammar and high school days, I read a lot of fiction. The Great Gatsby was an early favorite as was The Hobbit. And I'll never forget that fateful day in the sixth grade when I was handed a copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In college I read mostly non-fiction for my classes so, when I had time to read for pleasure, I read a goodly amount of sci-fi. The year I moved in with my then girlfriend, I felt fairly accomplished and mature which, for some unknown reason, impelled me to churn through some classic sci-fi series. The adventures of Lije Baley had captured my imagination as a kid and now it was time to tackle the Foundation series just as my old man had. I was so bound and determined that I ended up reading all five books. Yes, even the lousy later books written in the 1980s. The same went for the Rama series which was next in my reading diet. The first book, Rendezvous With Rama was published in 1972 and is great but the quality declined with each of the Gentry Lee-penned sequels.
Some people never listen and others never learn and I carried on with James P. Hogan's Giant series which chronicled the discovery of man's origin beginning with the discovery of a weird corpse on the moon. It was a fun read and didn't get dramatically worse as it wore on no doubt due to the fact that Hogan didn't wait millennia between volumes. After this burst, my sci-fi reading petered out and I turned towards non-fiction. I still read the odd narrative but they tended to be classics such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Dante's Inferno.
Then about a year ago I began to feel the pangs of guilt for having abandoned fiction. Memories of living with my friend Pete a few years previously came back. Amongst other tomes, he had plowed through Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander series – all 20 volumes. He'd have me translate the Latin for him. My buddy Dogger had recently come off his Neal Stephenson jag beginning with Cryptonomicon followed by the entirety of The Baroque Series, raving to me all the while how good it was.
During these years I tried to read some fantasy but it didn’t work. Considering that I'm a Dungeons & Dragons player, you'd think I'd be a fantasy reader but I just can't stomach the stuff. With Lord of the Rings films in theatres, I tried reading the books. I stumbled through The Fellowship of the Ring and got about a third of the way through The Two Towers before giving up on Tolkien's dense prose. At least I'd gotten further than I did with Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant Chronicles. After reading 40 words describing just how dark a particular room was, I decided that a page and a half was plenty for me. (There are qualified exceptions though, such as Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series which I'm surprised to have never seen on LOST. I've always thought the show could decently be described as Riverworld + Philip K. Dick.) Frankly this whole situation is a bit embarrassing as most of friends know Middle Earth inside & out from multiple readings of Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Additionally, a handful, most notably Pete, are intricately familiar with the Star Wars universe and will gleefully tell any passerby the tale of how Han Solo met Chewbacca. Even worse are James and Marv who devour more R.A. Salvatore than is safe for human consumption.
With the guilt weighing on my shoulders, I set out to get some fiction. But what to read? Christopher Hitchens to the rescue! Regardless of what you may think of his politics, the man is well-read and is familiar with a good deal of contemporary (English) literature. I found an interview with him in which he recommended some authors and I was off to the bookstore. The tomes languished on a bookshelf until just recently when I felt the time was right.
The first to have the dust blown off was Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child. The edition I had procured was a classic example of why cover blurbs are best avoided. It was a "horror story" according to the New York Times and Time magazine proclaimed it "hair-raising". From these comments prospective readers would think it's Stephen King-like affair but it's anything but. For one thing, King divides his books in chapters which Lessing eschews here. A leap of years in the story is but the space between a period and the first letter of the succeeding sentence. The style kept me a bit off-guard which works well for the tale.
It concerns Harriet and David Lovatt who meet an at office party in 1960s England. They marry and adopt a traditional stance towards children – they wants lots of them – owing to their less than ideal childhoods. As the title gives away, they end up with five kids. The first four are all lovely and fine, but the fifth, Ben, is something else. Eleven pounds at birth, he's a monster. Ben "was not pretty…He had a heavy-shouldered hunched look…His forehead sloped from his eyebrows to his crown." While it may sound like The Omen is about to play out, the book never turns into that kind of horror story. Any hair-raising comes from reading how the family rejects the brutish Ben with his Neanderthal looks and slowness of the brain box. The first part of the story relates the happiness surrounding the first four children and the large Easter gatherings of the extended family. But the advent of Ben changes all that.
The tone of the book is a bit stoic with the characters veering towards caricatures. Events run together and people settle into their routines. Things change after Ben's birth and especially after Harriet retrieves the boy from the asylum to which she and David had consigned him. (That is one harrowing scene.) The parents are revealed as less than perfect with less than perfect children leading less than picture perfect lives.
I enjoyed how Harriet's change of heart tugged on my own heart strings and how Lessing kept me wondering about Ben's fate until the end. It's a horror story but in an old-timey Gothic way with its demon seed instead of a child possessed by a demon. While I don't know what Lessing had in mind when she wrote The Fifth Child, I was reminded of all the mentally retarded people at work. The way they're led about by someone else and how they generally stand apart from the rest of us.
As I read, I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing something. Perhaps if I knew more of English middle class life in the 1970s I would have gotten more out of it. The book was published in 1988 and I must wonder why Lessing chose to set it more than a decade earlier. And I'm sure that if I had children of my own, I would have found more layers to the story. I've never known the worry and anxiousness of being an expectant parent and no doubt that if I had, the book would have resonated with me more strongly. Still, it was a good read.
With that being done, I launched into Martin Amis' Time's Arrow which recounts the life of one man backwards. Dr. Tod T. Friendly wakes up surrounded by doctors only to find himself feeling better and better. Actually, the narrator is sort of Friendly's doppelgänger who can feel his emotions but not influence his actions and so the narrative is a mix of first and third person. Friendly walks backwards into buildings and his relationships with women always begin tempestuously and end in the most romantic way before the woman is suddenly out of his life.
Every year Friendly receives a letter born from flames. It is first ashes and then it reassembles and flies into his hands. And it says the same thing year after year:
Dear Tod Friendly: I hope you are well, as we are. It pleases me to inform you that the weather here continues to be temperate!
This is the first clue we get as to Friendly's past or origin, if you like. We eventually find out he is really Odilo Unverdorben, a doctor who assisted a Josef Mengele-like character nicknamed "Uncle Pepi" at Auschwitz. He escaped the Russians and took on a series of new identities to avoid prosecution at Nuremburg. When told backwards, the Holocaust has a different ending. Odilo helps them get better: a swollen eye has a needle stuck into it and it becomes normal again; the Jews board trains and go back from whence they came. I presume that Amis is trying to make a certain kind of sense of the Holocaust. But, since I've never read anything else by him, it's difficult to pinpoint much as I don't know what themes he deals with in his other work.
As it is, Time's Arrow was a good, challenging read. There's some very dry humor as the narrator proves to be unreliable by his constant misinterpretation of events. For example, there's a conversation with a lover that is bookended by some funny observations. Firstly the narrator intones, "Because here's the weird thing about these relationships with women: you get everything on the first date." After their conversation which ends with the woman walking out on Tod, our narrator observes, "I have noticed in the past, of course, that most conversations would make much better sense if you ran them backward. But with man-woman stuff, you could run them any way you liked – and still get no further forward."
Having finished the book, I tend to think of it as sort of a perverted Inferno. The alter-consciousness of Tod Friendly is a bit like Virgil in Dante's tale and our protagonists each begin in darkness; one in a "dark wood", the other in the darkness of death. They each go on a journey; Dante to the inner sanctum of Hell while Friendly is off on a return trip to the womb. Not a perfect comparison, I know, but what's the point of reading the classics if you can't call on them occasionally?
Currently I'm one chapter into Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden. While there's no demon seeds and time travels forward here, I have already been caught off-guard. McEwan's tale is about children and he begins by diving head first into their psychology. Three pages in and siblings Julie, Sue, and Jack are playing a game of Examine the Alien. Sue takes off her clothes so that Julie and Tom can pretend to be German scientists examining the body of an alien. It should prove to be an interesting read.
Miles of Two-Strand Topped with Barbed Wire Laid by the Father For the Son
Yesterday morning I was pondering what to do and I decided that I needed to get out of the city. That's one of the great things about Madison: no matter where you are in the city, you're never more than, say, six miles from being out in the country. The handy Farm Fresh Atlas for Southern Wisconsin and felt like Horace Greeley, "Go northeast young man!" (Well, John Soule, actually.) I spied the entry for Sassy Cow Creamery and thought that ice cream was a good idea since it was to be a warm day. It would be me, The Dulcinea, and her youngest, M. My Internet went down (Anyone else having issues with Charter recently?) so I had The D check out the creamery's website. As luck would have it, yesterday was Part II of their grand opening extravaganza. I threw a cooler in my trunk and was off to pick up my love and M.
While the mailing address for the creamery is Columbus, it apparently lies in Bristol Township, just north of North Bristol. According to the incredibly handy Dane County Place Names, Bristol was named after Bristol, Ontario County, New York, which was the former home of David Wilder, who suggested the name. Wilder came to these parts in 1842 and his suggestion became official when the town separated from Sun Prairie on 11 March 1848. As for North Bristol, the genesis of the name is obvious but it didn't become official until 1876 when a post office was established.
If you go north on N from Sun Prairie, you can't miss the big red building. There were many a car parked in the lot and on the roads – the joint was hoppin'. We parked and immediately made our way to the free samples. I started with two fingers of chocolate milk before trying the strawberry. Both were quite tasty. Not overly sweet and not syrupy like the stuff you generally find in stores such as Dean's. Two more fingers of unflavored moo juice to cleanse the palate and I headed for the ice cream.
I can now personally vouch for the creamy goodness of the chocolate and strawberry varieties. An adjacent table lured me with its promise of free samples of cheese. Walking over there, I found these two gentlemen:
On the left you have Bert Paris (I hope I'm getting these names right) of Edelweiss Creamery who kindly let me sample some fine cheddar and gouda. He also explained that they are the only North American company that makes traditional 180-pound wheels of Swiss. Screw California! Wisconsin is also home to the only cheesemaker in the country (on the continent?) who makes Limburger – that'd be Myron Olson down in Monroe at the Chalet Cheese Cooperative. Screw California!
Next to Bert is his brother Ron from the Sugar River Dairy and they make some fine yoghurts. I'd bought some a couple weeks previously at the North Side Farmer's Market and it was a pleasure to make the acquaintance of the CEO. The Paris brothers were both extremely amicable and were happy to take time to answer questions and, in general, push their products in the friendliest Midwestern way.
Before venturing inside, I paused to take a peek at a calf who was penned up and trying to sleep as children threw straw and yelled at it. Note to parents: control your kids. If some cow disturbed your brats why they were trying to take a nap, you'd probably get pissed off. So how about trying to install a little respect for farm animals into your kids?
Inside I found a virtual dairy cathedral with the walls of the vaulted space lined with old milk bottles.
There were also coolers aplenty filled with cheeses, yoghurt, milk, etc. In addition, there were other locally-produced products such as Hawkwind Mustard and Relish (Baraboo), Potter's Crackers (Madison), maple syrup, and flavored honeys. These folks weren't messing around when it came to buying local. Next came a tour of the dairy. We met Bruce, the plant manager out back where tank trucks (of the quad axle variety) unload their milk. He then led us through a maze of stainless steel explaining all the while how the milk goes from cow to bottle. Sassy Cow is a farmstead operation which means that all the milk they sell comes from their own cows.
In the photo above, the left hand tank is for the milk of its 100 or so organic cows while the larger one on the right is for conventional milk from a herd of 400-500 cows. Now, here's the room where most of the action takes place:
All the pasteurizing and homogenizing actions takes place here as does the flavoring which occurs in the big 1000 gallon tank in the center. After watching the bottling operation work is slow motion, it was back outside to catch the tour bus which would take us to the farm.
During the tour of the dairy, there were two or three older couples and some of them asked about the herds and milking schedules. Poor Bruce couldn’t answer and referred them to Bob on the farm tour. These folks were in their 70s, if not older, and there was no doubt in my mind that they were dairy farmers from back in the day. They were surely very familiar with all the old fashioned dairy farm accoutrement on display outside from the time when farming was less mechanized than it is today. The tones of their voices were not that of typical townie curiosity. Instead they sounded like they were giving a friendly interrogation to ensure that family farm traditions were being upheld. I waited for one of them to start saying, "Back when I was dairy farmer…" but that never happened. Still, no doubt those folks had some good stories to tell.
(That's me in a moment of omphaloskepsis wherein I deeply contemplated chocolate ice cream.)
Soon we hit the road in an old school bus which brought back memories of my high school days up nort.
Our tour guide was Bob Baerwolf who owns Sassy Cow with his brother James. He was quick to point out that his mother, Mary, was aboard and that it was his parents who helped them start up the creamery. If memory serves, James lives near the organic herd and takes care of it while Bob and his family's home is by the conventional cows. The bus made only a brief stop at the organic barn as the cows were out grazing in the field. And so we headed out to the other farm where we could get up close and personal with the conventional herd. They say that the sense of smell is intricately tied to our memories and that proved true as we approached the barns. The aroma of cow shit permeated my nostrils and I was thrown back once again to my high school days up nort by Eau Claire. Don't misunderstand me – I didn't live on a farm. But many of my friends did so hanging out with cows and other farm animals was not exactly a foreign concept to me. Anyway, the cows were eating and relaxing.
A section of the barn was home to heifers or at least mothers-to-be. Our luck was in and there was one who was in the throes of labor with her amniotic sack or whatever it was hanging out. It was real All Creatures Great and Small stuff.
Bob said that she was about an hour out from delivering a calf and that roughly 75% of cows give birth without assistance from we meddling humans. But, for those difficult instances, he had installed a camera system so he can keep an eye on things from his house. As I watched, a pair of hooves started to protrude. The miracle of life! Unfortunately, none of my photos of this were in focus so head over to The Dulciena's blog some time as I'm sure she'll have better photos than me.
Soon enough, it was time to head back to the store. Once we had returned, it was time to shell out some of my hard-earned lucre. I got some milk, a wedge of Ededweiss cheddar, some Sugar River yoghurt, and a pound of bacon from Fountain Prairie Farms who had replaced Edelweiss outside and were giving away samples of their beef sticks and summer sausage. Mmm…The D and I had some of the bacon this morning and I must tell you that it's absolutely fantastic. Just the right amount of smoke, not too salty, and the flesh has this great creamy texture. The stuff just melts in your mouth.
The Dulcinea ended up with a farmer's tan and hay in her hair while we all smelled like farm. It doesn't take long for your clothes to become imbued with that scent against which even Tide is powerless. M. got a chance to hang out on a farm and eat lots of ice cream. For my part, I enjoyed the countryside and the slow pace. I asked M. at one point if he wanted to be a farmer when he grew up and he replied harshly, "No way!" That's too bad. He's only 8 but I still hope that he doesn't think of farming as a low-grade trade and instead wanted to avoid the ball-busting work which is farming. M. has lived in Madison all his life and I can understand his perspective. I grew up in Chicago and, until I moved to rural Wisconsin, didn't have the greatest respect for farm work either. I don't remember if I felt disrespect towards farmers as is often the wont of city folk but the concept of the farm was certainly foreign to me. It's difficult to understand and appreciate that life until you have some regular contact with it. It's a lot easier to sit in an office all day and head to the grocery store than it is to become a steward of the land and the animals on it.
I saw Sassy Cow Creamery milk for sale at Woodman's this morning. Prices on milk have dropped recently as even the organic stuff was under $6/gallon. I look forward to seeing their butter, ice cream, etc. on the shelves.
I lost my Mad Dog's Chicago Dog virginity today via their food cart on the Square. I complained earlier this week about their poor Italian beef but I must cheer their Chicago Dogs. Paul Soglin has given a review already and I think he's on the mark but have to dock him points for eschewing sport peppers. Thusly he only ate an inferior simulacrum of a Chicago Dog. But I'll let it slide. Needless to say, my dog was a beautiful mess and I think I need to wash my goatee because I can't get the smell of mustard out of nose. Everything was there in the right proportions and so the bun was overflowing with Chicago Dog goodness.
While I'm on the topic of food, I'll note that Jerry Minnich has a review of Alchemy in this week's Isthmus. Alchemy replaced Wonder's Pub recently. One thing that I'll point out right away which I didn't notice until it was too late is this: while Wonder's was a pub, Alchemy is a café.
The Dulcinea and I went there a couple Saturdays ago in the late afternoon. Walking in, we found that it looked pretty much like Wonder's did. Cozying up to the bar, I checked out what they had on tap as well as in bottles. While it was mostly a microbrewed affair, I was disappointed to find only a couple lagers and I ended up with a pint of Victory Lager. (Methinks so. It was a Victory lager of some ilk.) Count me out of the hoppiest-IPA-you-can-brew race. And it's ales, ales everywhere and not a lager to drink. I am about ready to start a Love Your Lager campaign to counter the never-ending onslaught of ales. As the bartender was placing the glass on the bar, I found myself disappointed that I was served a pint instead of a pilsner glass. I looked at the back of the bar to see if there were any but saw none. As we were drinking, a baby started crying and I realized what was wrong. I wanted to be in a pub or a tavern and not a café. This feeling was compounded when I was outside having a smoke and a shiny new SUV pulls up before me. Out pops an urban outfitted Yuppie couple with the man clad in Jesus Land Rovers (i.e. – Birkenstocks) and they amble inside. I became even less interested in being at Alchemy.
Again, the problem was with me. I wanted to be hanging out with grown-ups, not toddler-laden families; I wanted my pilsner in a pilsner glass; I was hoping to see adults disregarding propriety with dice being rolled and parlay card being filled out. Instead I found myself at a really nice café - a café that served a very tasty burger & fries and green beans. And one that should be highly commended for seeking out local ingredients, including the hot sauce, the name of which I cannot recall, which was made up nort somewhere. One of the waitresses either knew or was related to the hot sauce maker. It was very good indeed, although the maximum strength stuff was a little on the weak side for my palate. I also want to give props to Alchemy for hosting live music. There was much to like about the place.
It was just me. I really wanted to be across the street at Players instead of Alchemy yet we somehow ended up at Mickey's.
I read this week that the House of Representatives has passed a law giving the Justice Department the ability to sue OPEC "limiting oil supplies and working together to set crude prices".
The bill would subject OPEC oil producers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela, to the same antitrust laws that U.S. companies must follow.
Rep. Steve Kagen from Wisconsin's 8th District (that's the upper northeast part of the state) is a sponsor of the bill and I must wonder just how exactly he plans to make any judgment against OPEC binding. This is just classic: "The lawmaker said Americans 'are at the mercy' of OPEC for how much they pay for gasoline". Well, duh! It's not Saudi Arabia's fault that there's a lot of oil underneath their sands; it's not Venezuela's fault that we built an interstate highway system in the '50s & 60s instead of investing in public transportation; Iran is not to blame for whites fleeing the cities in the post-war period and establishing suburbs where you have to drive a mile just to go to the bathroom.
Here's another great one: a U.S. soldier has been accused of using the Koran for target practice while being stationed in Baghdad. Dumb idea to be sure. Really dumb. But this prompted Bush to call the Iraqi PM to apologize and the military is playing all nice'n'sorry.
U.S. military commanders in Iraq held a ceremony to formally apologize and present a new Koran to tribal leaders in the area where the incident took place. The number two U.S. commander has also met Iraqi leaders to apologize.
You have got to be shittin' me. Does Bush call Nuri al-Maliki or anyone else to apologize when Blackwater contractors randomly shoot civilians? Did he get on the horn to apologize for Abu Ghraib? When innocent people are slaughtered, it's just breaking eggs for a Yahweh-sanctioned omelet. But when a book of fairy tales gets some bullet holes, it's a national emergency.
As Chicaogist noted, May is National Masturbation Month. It completely slipped my mind.
In my defense, every month is masturbation month as far as I'm concerned. The folks down south compiled a list of things that get them going and I thought it'd be amusing to do the same for we Madisonians. There are similarities. Here's my list:
The Mad Rollin' Dolls
The ladies at the back of the bus on my morning jaunt on route 15.
A Woman's Touch
The gals who setup the outdoor seating at Marigold Kitchen in the morning.
The baristas of Ancora on King Street.
Watching girls' butts on the bus. Or on the street.
Watching pulchritudinous joggers zip around the Square.
The MILFs who bring their children down to the Monona Terrace on weekdays.
All the hotties at the Wednesday farmers' market off the Square.
Co-eds sunbathing on the piers behind the sorority houses.
Anticipation of hottie microbrew drinkers at the Malt House.
Freshly-minted hottie social workers starting their careers at the Department of Children and Families.
Eating Zanzibar ice cream from the Chocolate Shoppe.
Bars of lavender goodness from Ladyfox Soaps.
Ayperi bellydancing on the Convention Center rooftop.
Anna of the Reptile Palace Orchestra slithering onstage on the Convention Center rooftop.
The Latinas who have the unfortunate job of cleaning the office building in which I work.
Chocolate from Gail Ambrosius.
Freema Agyeman on the new season of Doctor Who.
Thoughts of all the gamer chicks who will be dressed as the scantily clad Princess Leia from Return of the Jedi at GenCon.
Drinking beer outside at the Ale Asylum. Drinking beer outside. Drinking beer.
The drive down to Chicago on Saturday was fairly relaxing. I'd burned some BBC radio documentaries on CD for the journey's soundtrack. The adjacent westbound lanes mired in construction flew by as I listened to a history of the Templars and about the excavation of a large cemetery in London which used to service the city's largest medieval hospital. It's amazing what bones can tell us. (Hint: there was a lot of syphilis going around back then.) The occasion for my trip was to see my mother, brother, and friends and to help my cousin clean out my aunt's old place. My aunt had moved into an assisted living facility and my cousin wants to get her house onto the market. It was a matter of seconds after I'd gone through the Elgin toll stop that I'd switched into Chicago driving mode. I know people who are absolutely terrified at the prospect of driving in Chicagoland but all it takes is a bit more speed and a slightly keener eye to watch out for dipshits going 90 mph who cut you off as they traverse 3 or 4 lanes in one fell swoop. Traffic was pretty decent until the standard standstill once the Kennedy Expressway is within a mile. You creep along past Cumberland Ave as all those folks going downtown jockey for the pole position. Luckily my mom lives on the north side which means by the time traffic picks up at Harlem Avenue, I'm almost at my exit.
I got to my mother's place in good time. We chatted a bit and she gave me a bar of Scharffen Berger chocolate. Limited Series Bar #9: 75% Cacao Antilles, to be exact. (Number 9…number 9…number 9…) It was nice to see her again but it was slightly bittersweet. My aunt, whose house I was to help empty, had lost the use of her right hand and, if this wasn't bad enough, she was extremely unhappy with the assisted living center she resided in. It was full of old people. Being in her mid-60s, she had little in common with people 80+. My grandmother too wasn't doing well. She lives in an apartment complex for senior citizens and recently her friend of 20+ years had been whisked away to an assisted living complex. I can't imagine what it must be like to be 92 and to have seen so many friends arrive and disappear and to see ambulances pull up to take your neighbors away. Yet somehow everyone moves on. My mom is sort of stuck in the middle having a sister and mother to attend to. And she keeps on keeping on despite her favorite son living in Wisconsin. (Ahem.)
Of course the weekend I zip to Chicago is the one my mother has all sorts of things afoot – a wedding to attend, a luncheon, etc. Still we have some time together and decide to walk over to Andy's Deli to grab a bite to eat. On the way there, we stopped at the doorway of one business that tapes Xerox lore on one of its windows. Included in the bunch was one of those "You know you're from Wisconsin if…" lists.
Walking into Andy's we found is very busy, as per usual. We ambled over to the side of the deli counter which has a variety of hot & cold foods available and some seating. Despite being primarily a grocery store, they have a smorgasbord of hot foods for take away. Scanning the selection, I spied a variety of Polish food - cabbage rolls, bigos, roasted chicken, etc. But I also noticed some decidedly non-Slavic dishes such as BBQ ribs. It all looked so tasty and I was having a hard time deciding what to get. Then I saw it. I had no idea what it was but it was wrapped in bacon and that was all I needed. The women behind the counter were all blondes in their early 20s and I was helped by one who was described by the Reverend Horton Heat in the song "Big Little Baby". She was probably 6'3" and her callipygian figure was served well by the tight jeans which she wore. Bacon and beautiful Polish women – my weekend was going very well indeed.
My mother got some ribs while I got the bacon hoolie and we split some cabbage salad. The ribs were actually pretty decent, I must admit. And my bacon-wrapped delight was excellent. While I cannot recall the Polish name for the dish, it is a chicken dumpling. You make a seasoned dumpling out of ground chicken, wrap in bacon, and then cook. It was incredibly tasty.
After lunch we headed over to a produce store where I bought some quinces to make more quince marmalade. With that being done, my mom headed to a wedding and I to my brother Carl's place.
When I arrived, my brother was asleep but his roommate Andrew was up and about. Eventually the sleeper awakened and I was able to present him the gift from The Dulcinea. It was a red t-shirt with a top hat and fancy moustache emblazoned on the front. Your generic villain apparel. We spent the afternoon hanging out, essentially, which was just what I needed. There was much discussion about various topics including politics, music, and film. In addition we watched Fido which featured Billy Connolly as a 1950's domestic servant zombie. It was really funny. The plan for the evening was to head to Glenn's house for some gaming and to check out his new Kegerator which had some Goose Island Honkers Ale waiting for us. I had, however, once stipulation: Carl had to buy me Italian beef for dinner. My demand was born out of frustration with finding a good Italian beef here in Madison. Considering the large number of ex-pats from Chicago, you'd think the odds of finding the good stuff would be more than a snowball's chance in hell. Luckily you can't swing a dead cat in Chicago without hitting a stand which sells the sandwiches along with Polishes, Chicago dogs, and the like.
A couple months ago I started to get that hankering for an Italian beef. Having grown up in Chicago, I need one periodically to maintain my bodily integrity. So I started seeking out it out. I began with Poppa Coronofoulos over on Buckeye. For some reason the heretical Mr. Coronofoulos serves their beef with gravy that is a brown liquid derived from bouillon cubes. It is overly salty, tastes vaguely like beef, and has absolutely no seasoning. WTF?
Next up was Mad Dog's before class one day last month. Former Chicagoan and ex-mayor Paul Soglin noted that they do the Chicago dog correctly so I had high hopes. Things got better when I approached the joint and found that they had an Italian beef special. I walk in, gleefully order the special, and take a seat. In short order my dinner was ready and tragedy struck. What should have been the culinary equivalent of my wedding day ended up a disaster. At least the gravy had some seasoning. Just not the right seasoning and not enough. It was close to bland and had a funny taste. Where was the oregano? From where comes the fear of adding leafy flavors? To top things off, the fries were horrible as well. Instead of standing proud and erect as they were dipped into ketchup, they were flaccid and just drooped into my condiment when placed near. I'll give Mad Dog's another shot because they could have been having an off evening. But I'm going Chicago dog all the way.
My attempts at finding a good Italian beef at an eatery having been thwarted, I went to the venerable Fraboni's. I have a love-hate relationship with Fraboni's. Their Italian sausage, actually. For some reason they put fennel only in the hot stuff but not the mild. Now, I love spicy foods but occasionally cook for folks who don't enjoy the curative properties of capsaicin for some odd reason. In those times, I want the mild. But Italian sausage isn't Italian sausage if there's no fennel. Anyway, I bought a big bucket of Italian beef gravy. I let it thaw overnight because I'm so patient. This also gave me time to get some beef. When the special day arrived, I heated the gravy and then put the beef in so it too could heat up. There's no cooking involved here, just warming. When it was done, I put the beef on some bread and ladled a bit of the gravy on it as well. Up to my mouth the sandwich goes and I take a bite. I then immediately wince? "What the hell is this?" The gravy tasted like beef bouillon with some odd spices. Again, where are my leafy herbs?! I dumped the thing out. What a waste.
OK. Italian beef is an American creation. In fact, I think it was invented in Chicago. Thusly one needn't fly to Italy and seek out some tiny, obscure ancestral village to learn how to make it. All you have to do is go to Chicago. Or getting the stuff from Sysco and import it from Chitown. Rocket science it ain't.
And so on Saturday night my brother and I drove to Jay's Beef, his favorite. I got the hot version with a goodly dose of hot giardiniera and couldn't wait to get to Glenn's place to dig into it. But, when I did, it was heaven. The beef was succulent and the gravy was delicious with all its herbal goodness. Plus the fries were fresh. This was good eats. My next stop will be the FIBs food cart down at Library Mall. It's apparently run by a woman named Betty who is from Illinois. All my beefy hopes and dreams lay with her.
In addition to eating heartily at Glenn's we watch the Brewers lose. And after that we played a couple rounds of Merchants of Amsterdam. I'd never played it before but found it easy to pick up the rules. Players take turns turning cards over and then either placing markers on various spots or moving them along a chart thingy. Oh, and there's the Dutch auction too where the bidding works in reverse to what we're used to. The counter starts at 200,000 guilder and works its way down. Get the bargains while you can. It was fun. While gameplay is good, my critique is that the game doesn't provide much incentive to spend and be entrepreneurial. Saving your cash and being conservative seems to reap greater financial rewards.
On Sunday it was out to Arlington Heights to help empty out my aunt's place. But before that, I sat around drinking coffee with Andrew and trading theories about the identity of Jacob on LOST. We then went to a Golden Nugget for breakfast. Since my hair was a mess, I grabbed the nearest hat – a Milwaukee Brewers cap. (For his part, Andrew had a Sox cap on.) Walking in, I was hit by a blast from the past. I hadn't been to a Golden Nugget in ages. The entire waitstaff was wearing Cubs jerseys so I feared that we'd never get seated. But we did. I had chocolate chocolate chip pancakes and hash browns while Andrew had an omelet. And we split an order of biscuits & gravy. Needless to say, we made gluttons of ourselves. But I also got to read the Tribune and look all urban.
After breaking my fast, it was off to my aunt's place in the burbs. My cousin was there digging around and she said that she'd found our grandfather's tax returns dating back to the late 1940s. My aunt was a pack rat. It was a real trip down memory lane going through all the stuff. There were lots of kitchen items that brought back fond memories. For instance, there was the hoolie my aunt used to make rosettes. I recall eating them as a kid very well. A good find for me was a copy of a thesis paper written by some gentleman called "The Russians of Buckner". The aunt in question is my mom's sister and their paternal grandparents immigrated from Galicia to America and ended up in Buckner, Illinois which is in the far southern part of the state. By "Russians", the author refers to folks coming from the Imperial Russian Empire or ethnic Slavs coming from the Austro-Hungarian Empire which describes my great-grandparents. I've been reading the paper on the bus and it's pretty interesting. Oddly enough, my great-grandfather and a couple of my great-uncles are mentioned as having been in a brass band in Buckner during the late 1920s. The paper describes Buckner as sleepy little farming town until the coal mine there opened and many Slavic immigrants ended up finding work there. A Russian Orthodox church was established and a Russian school was opened that Russian children would attend on the weekends to learn their parents' native tongue and customs. There was also a large number of Poles who landed in Buckner. By contrast, their schools were held during the week after normal public school classes.
I suppose the Russian immigrant experience detailed in the paper resembles that of other ethnic groups at other times, including today. People hold fast onto traditions from their homelands but, with successive generations, they become more Americanized. One section details the problems the immigrants had with one particular bit of Americanization – adjusting to Prohibition. One custom these people brought with them was the distillation of vodka and they were damned if they were going to give it up. There was the odd arrest but most folks got on with the business of home distilling without a hassle despite one local judge who sought to deport any immigrant caught hanging out with John Barleycorn.
All in all, a very interesting read; not just because my family is involved, but rather because it gives some insight into how culture and traditions change over time and place, one of my favorite subjects.
My next step is to try the FIBs food cart down on Library Mall. I think the students are gone so the scene should be less crowded. Anyone who's read this far try it out yet?
A few things I learned while in Chicago:
--Bowzer Dog has closed. R.I.P.
--The Chicago Reader is apparently not as good as it was before having been bought out.
--A half-theatre/half-circus rendition of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is playing at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston.
--Ozric Tentacles will be playing at the Abbey Pub next month on the 11th.
Stiffer Penalties for Those Who Drive After a Few Stiff Ones
The recent poll data which shows that Wisconsonians lead the nation in drunk driving has caused quite an outcry. The state's culture of drinking and driving received unanimous opprobrium. It didn't take long before Governor Doyle proposed that one's third OWI be considered a felony. And now Christian Schneider of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute has laid some options on the table. While this is a tough row to hoe, stiffer penalties are a good idea and should be the first option on the table.
About five years ago, my father got three OWIs in the span of 2-3 months. Unlike many, he wasn't going out on the weekends and enjoying a few too many beers before driving home. Instead he was drowning his sorrow in the wake of my stepmother's death. He lived about 10 miles south of Eau Claire and would drive into town so he could lose himself (further) in a haze of vodka gimlets. My stepmom's death sent my father into a spiral of depression which led him to become a virtual recluse. While he was always curmudgeonly, he would only venture out during this period to do a bit of shopping now and then and to go drown his sorrows. My visits consisted mostly of holding him when he burst into tears and watching him get drunk and passing out. I would do chores for him such as mowing the lawn, chopping wood, and empting the recyclables bag which was always spilling over with depleted Siberian Ice bottles. His once beautiful flower garden was overgrown with weeds and, being a fixer-upper kind of guy, all the projects around the house had ground to a halt. There was basically nothing that anyone could say or do to help improve things. The only times that he seemed better was when I was there. I'll spare you the long story and just say that he expressed regret for a lot of things to me during this period and it was the second time I recall him ever expressing his need for his children. But I lived in Madison and couldn't be there constantly – my stepsister pulled a gun from his mouth a few times.
Then came the OWIs. How it was that he got served is beyond me. Either he got to the tavern drunk and was allowed to leave with his keys or bartenders served him when they knew they shouldn't have. The bartenders at his watering hole of choice knew him because A) he was a regular and B) my stepmom had worked there. My stepsister also hung out there. So they knew what was happening; they knew the spiral he was in. How he managed to walk out of these completely shit-faced is something I cannot understand. Luckily no one got hurt and only his car and a roadside sign were damaged. But the hat trick meant time in the pokey. He served 2-3 weeks. I recall visiting him for the first time after he got out and was amazed at the changes. While it didn't prove to be a road to Damascus kind of thing, his time behind bars really changed him. He stopped drinking and driving and reached out to friends and neighbors for rides to town. Plus he made the decision to move, to try to get on with his life somewhere that wasn't burdened with memories of my stepmother. To be sure, he was still grieving but there was a lot less anger in addition to the drive to carry on.
Now, I'm not saying that a couple weeks in jail is going to work miracles for everyone who drinks and drives. We'll be plagued with drunk drivers as long as we have people driving. But imposing jail time for chronic OWI offenders earlier would help. Some may finally get the point and stop; if nothing else, if they're behind bars, they're not behind the wheel drunk.
Go ahead and call us insane, but we all just love a train
Unless you hang out in the smoke-filled board rooms of Exxon-Mobile or British Petroleum, you probably won't be recognizing the 100th anniversary of the discovery of oil in Persia later this month.
Dramatic events in a remote Persian wilderness exactly a hundred years ago heralded the beginning of a new era in the Middle East. A wealthy British entrepreneur, William Knox D’Arcy (1849-1917), had secured a concession to prospect for oil in the country in 1901. After several years of exhausting andsy seemingly fruitless work, a drilling team led by a maverick British explorer, George Reynolds (1852-1925) was about to strike gold. During the early hours of May 26th, 1908, a short distance from an ancient settlement known as Masjid-i Suleiman, in south-western Persia, the ground suddenly started to rumble and, as men shouted with excitement and fear, a gushing, stinking black torrent spurted high into the air.
D'Arcy and Reynolds probably never dreamt that their black gold would trade for around $122 per barrel as it is today. This is no doubt part of the reason that some folks around Madison are finding that prices shot up overnight by $0.14 at some gas stations. While the Monona Terrace parking ramp fills up every morning with cars occupied by only the driver, more and more people are taking advantage of the state's Rideshare program. The Wisconsin DOT is reporting that "The month of April has seen a nearly 50% increase in Rideshare registrants over the month of March achieving an 80% match rate".
In related news, The Cap Times notes today that Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport saw a record-setting 745,893 passengers in March. What the city's progressive paper didn't say today was that Amtrak's Hiawatha line, which runs between Milwaukee and Chicago, set a ridership record in March. 62,399 passengers rode the rails in March, 30% more than the same month last year. Both Mitchell and the Hiawatha line are serving ever more passengers.
Fuel prices continue to increase which has prompted airlines to reduce domestic flights in favor of the more profitable international variety. This comes amidst calls for the Midwest to consider itself a regional economy and for states and groups to band together. The Wisconsin Technology Council has identified the "I-Q Corridor", the area that runs from Chicago to Minneapolis and includes Madison & Milwaukee and experts are telling us that, if the Upper Midwest is compete in a global economy, then Cheeseheads are going to have to band together with FIBs and Mudducks. And, with rising fuel prices, fewer domestic flights, and more congested highways, high-speed rail can become a viable alternative.
Fred Risser was recently appointed to the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission. Risser is a late comer as Wisconsin joined the MIPRC in only March of this year. The Feds apparently only throw scraps to rail but let's hope Risser hits the ground running and that the MIPRC can grab some of them.
Alex Polish-American Deli is now known as Alex Polish Deli. The original owner fell ill recently and sold the establishment to a new gentleman named Chris who re-opened the deli about a month ago. On a recent stop, the young man behind the counter informed us that he was Columbian but has quickly learned to appreciate Polish food. (The Dulcinea thought the cute counter staff was a nice addition while I missed the highlander moustache and the callipygian daughter.) He also remarked that the new owner is Polish & German (like me!) and that he has some plans to make it more broadly European. I recall being told that the selection of kielbasa was to expand. Look for a rechristening in the near future.
And so The Dulcinea and I left with food for a Polish Constitution Day feast while the lunch I packed today includes a sandwich with Moscow ham and peppered pork loin. The spiced bacon roll still sits in my refrigerator...
Madison Police officer Lt. Joe Balles was quoted in the Chicago Tribune recently as saying, "The big city has come to Madison." He was referring to panhandlers and unsolved murder. But panhandlers are nothing new here and, when Madison starts collectively bracing for multiple gunshots and murders on the weekends like Chicago has been as of late, then I'll think big city. Belles is correct, though; the big city is here as evidenced by the inter-agency squabbling over Brittany Zimmerman's futile 911 call. When the MPD and the county 911 center have dueling press conferences, that's big city to me. As Jason Shepherd wrote today, Kathleen Falk and Joe Norwick contend "that Madison police asked them to conceal the 911 call from the public. My sources believed that the Police Department asked that some specific information, including the time and what was heard on the tape, not be released, but did not ask them to hide the existence of the call. Madison Police Chief Noble Wray subsequently confirmed that police never asked the 911 center to deny the call’s existence." And as Bill Lueders wrote about a Norwick press conference, "The speaker was 911 Center director Joe Norwick, a former high-ranking Sheriff’s Office official. But the show was the reporters in the room, and their clear collective sense that Norwick was trying to give us a snow job."
Where is the mayor during all of this? He's the chief executive of this city and it appears that the county is blowing smoke up our collective ass. He needs to call a press conference and show some anger; he needs to pledge that he will personally make sure that the truth comes out and that he'll do whatever is in his power to make sure that any processes that failed are corrected. When accounting and HR are bickering at your office, a manager higher up says "Enough!" and puts his or her foot down. Cieslewicz needs to do the same. I can't say whether the young women who attend the UW are particularly fearful right now but, if they were, I wouldn't blame them. However, from talking to friends and reading various blogs, I think that many in Madison are angry at seeing the city and county at loggerheads and feels like the public is getting jerked around by two government entities that appear to be battling to save face instead of conspiring to improve public safety.
The MPD has another problem on its hands. Kelly Nolan and Joel Marino's murders were unsolved at the time of Zimmerman's death and they remain so. If Isthmus sources are to be believed, Zimmerman was beaten and stabbed to death. While I don't doubt that the MPD is diligently working to solve these crimes, although Marino's parents may believe otherwise, the police have a PR problem in the making. True or not, I think that there's an increasing perception of the police as more concerned with milking a cash cow on Mifflin Street by writing $290 open container tickets at a block party than engaging in a manhunt for the Doty Street Ripper. This plus Bill Lueders reminding us of nearly a dozen detectives who showed support for a scumbag rapist does not exactly endear the public to the MPD.
The mayor is very proactive when it comes to trolleys and promoting what I presume he to be seen as his legacy – a greener Madison. But when it comes to crime and policing, Cieslewicz seems reactive. It's as if a problem comes to light and he creates a commission to study it. Again, true or not, that's my perception and that of more than a few Madisonians. If the county is still contending that the MPD asked it to conceal the 911 call, then our mayor needs to stand up and put and end to this he said-she said stalemate. Should the MPD have done that despite Police Chief Noble Wray's statement to the contrary, then heads should roll. If the MPD is in the clear, then the mayor needs to vocally and publically defend them. Wray should not be taking on the county by himself.
The mayor should step up to the plate and lead instead of sitting back and letting underlings and representatives of the county do all the work.
I live in Madison, Wisconsin which was named after James Madison, one of this country's Founding Fathers. When the streets were platted in 1836, 39 of them were named for the signatories of the Constitution. I work on a street named after James Wilson and, come August, will be living on Rutledge Street, named after John Rutledge. I suspect that most of my fellow Madisonians don’t even realize for whom the streets on the isthmus were named nor care very much. Madison is no stranger to political correctness and casting them off as mere rich white men who owned slaves is not uncommon.
But even in today's political landscape, what the Founding Fathers did or did not say, did or did not mean is still of perennial concern for Americans. Recently, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia did an interview for the TV program 60 Minutes. Scalia is known for his view of "originalism" or that the Constitution has meanings fixed by the men who wrote it and that his job is to decide cases in view of those original meanings; this country's secular principles are under assault by certain religious groups who claim that America was founded as a "Christian nation" and would give their particular religious beliefs and concerns prominent places in the public sphere; the Bush administration's notion of the "Unitary Executive" is drawing fierce debate about the separation of powers. Here in Madison, we have the newly-formed UW chapter of Student for Concealed Carry on Campus which brings the Second Amendment into play. In popular culture, HBO's mini-series John Adams recently finished airing.
One man who is concerned with the FFs is Jonathan Rowe. Both at his personal blog and at the group effort Positive Liberty, the small "L" libertarian routinely discusses issues of church & state when not posting YouTube clips of one of his favorite bands, Kansas. If you need your fill of deism & the wall of separation on one hand and Steve Walsh guitar solos & Robby Steinhardt violin melodies on the other, Rowe is your man.
A graduate of Temple University, Mr. Rowe is an assistant professor at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, New Jersey where he teaches law and business for the college's Business & Technology Division. I discovered his blog after he left a comment at my podcast where I had posted a Kansas concert. I find his blog extremely interesting but at the same time am often reminded that I am woefully under-read when it comes to the Founding Fathers and the founding of America. And so I asked Rowe if he would submit himself to a smattering of questions to tease out some of the historical ideas and issues surrounding church-state separation and the FFs with an eye towards people like me who have only a basic understanding of the topics. Much to my delight he consented.
Jon, let me first say thanks for answering my questions. This should be most interesting. I want to start by asking when it was that you became interested in the topic of the intellectual and religious milieu surrounding the founding of America?
It was around five years ago before I started blogging. Flipping through television channels I’d see religious right figures, most notably D. James Kennedy, telling a tale of America as a “Christian Nation.” Most of the leading figures from the religious right like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell seemed to affirm this reading. I heard the very opposite from my mainly liberal law school professors and from such groups like AU and the ACLU.
Also around this time I began to debate culture war and economic issues on various Internet venues. I came to these debates as a libertarian; so I sounded left-wing on social issues, but right wing on economic issues. And, on those social issues I’d encounter glib responses that seemed to boil down to “we are justified in putting issues through our Biblical litmus test because America was founded to be a Christian Nation and our forms of government derive from the Bible.” Something didn’t seem right about this response. But I was also skeptical about the left-wing “separation of Church & State” line that portrayed all of the American Founders like a bunch of ACLU style modern secularists.
I set out to find the truth about American history and found both sides were wrong; both sides overstate their case and the truth is somewhere in between.
What was is it about the subject generally and the religious views of the Founding Fathers specifically that drew your interest?
Religion and America’s Founding is important because someone’s religion, or lack thereof is a very important part of his or her life and one of the perennial philosophical questions. How America’s Founders treated religion, accordingly, matters because, like it or not, countries look to their foundings for guidance, and our Founders’ views influence how America ought to presently understand itself, what kind of nation America ought to be. Especially how we treat folks regarding their own personal religion or lack thereof. One thing I especially value about the American Founding is how liberal they were for their time regarding extending equal religious rights to all.
Today there are many who say that America was founded as a Christian nation and use bogus quotes from the FFs to support their claim. And I think it was Christopher Hitchens who recently declared that Thomas Jefferson was an atheist. So there are lots of people who seek to recruit the Founders to their side in ideological debates today. What does an understanding of the FF's religious views and intellectual influences offer to us here in 21st century America?
That’s a great question. On many moral issues – slavery, equal rights for women, treatment of American Indians – America’s Founders blew it and some (mainly from the left) argue why bother trying to look for any moral meaning in what they did. Paul Finkelman of Albany Law School notably represents this “trashing” of the Founders view. On the other hand, many on the right make a hagiography out of the American Founding and seemingly try to defend or at least “explain away” the indefensible moral sins of the past. Thomas West of the University of Dallas is probably the most notable “vindicator” of the American Founding. Again, I found the proper way to understand the US Founding is in between these two positions, put in nuanced context. Slavery – the owning of human beings – is morally indefensible wherever and whenever it occurred. But it was a global institution that existed virtually everywhere from time immemorial that Western European culture first ended. And in America from 1861-65 we paid a big price in blood for our “sin” of slavery.
I do think America’s Founding offers moral meaning to us in the 21st Century. And the way in which the key Founders believed in liberty and equality of religious rights for all people, including atheists is one such part of America’s religious history of which I am particularly proud.
On the recruiting America’s Founders for your side, in terming Jefferson and Franklin atheists, Hitchens is every bit as guilty as the David Barton types when they try to make almost all of America’s Founders into orthodox Christians.
I want to get into some specifics now and begin a bit before our Founding. Talk to me about John Locke. Who was he and what impact did his ideas have on the Founders?
English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) was the most important philosophical influence on the American Founding. Thomas Jefferson lifted large parts of his Second Treatise on Government in writing the Declaration of Independence. And Jefferson and James Madison wrote two groundbreaking documents on religious freedom in the struggle to separate church and state in Virginia – Jefferson’s Statute on Religious Freedom and Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance. Both of those works posit ideas taken from Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration. Yet, as liberal as Locke was for his time, he still didn’t include atheists or Roman Catholics into his vision of toleration. But Jefferson and Madison explicitly said they would take Locke’s ideas and go further, and protect everyone’s religious rights equally.
Because of his importance, there is a big dispute as to just how religious Locke personally was and how authentically Christian his ideas were. Locke was not a secret atheist as the followers of Leo Strauss believe, or a Deist. Yet, Locke also rejected original sin and the Trinity, and was most likely Arian in his Christology, which would make him a secret heretic. Back then non-Trinitarian heretics could be executed in the Christian West simply for speaking their minds (see Michael Servetus whom Calvin had executed in Geneva for publicly arguing against the Trinity). The push for religious liberty and separation of Church and State resulted in large part so that heretics would be able to freely think and speak their minds without fear of civil penalty. As such, it makes sense that bright, heretical philosophically minded thinkers would be on the forefront in arguing for religious liberty. Yet, I also recognized many orthodox Christians, particularly those of dissident Protestant sects – most notably Roger Williams and the Baptists – also to be the movers and shakers in bringing America and Western Civilization religious liberty and secular government.
I recently read Chris Hedges' American Fascists and, in the book, there are several of the aforementioned people who claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. I know that you disagree with this notion and recently wrote in your blog that the American Founding was a "synthesis" of many ideas including: Greco-Roman, Common Law, Christianity, Whig, and Enlightenment. Can you talk about what these five strands of thought contributed to our experiment in democracy?
The primary problem with the Christian America idea is that it seems to only recognize the Bible/Christian principles as a source of ideas for American government and practically pretends the other ideological traditions didn’t exist. Occasionally you get a more nuanced view that recognizes all four or five sources but argues Christian principles dominated. I disagree and see Enlightenment and Whig principles as key. However, once you recognize America’s Founding was a synthesis of these different sources, there is room for honest disagreement over which sources dominated.
Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn notably articulated the synthesis in his book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. To say a brief word on each of those sources: Greco-Roman refers to the Ancient democracies and republics of pagan Greece and Rome for which America’s Founders had a strong affinity. Indeed in their anonymous tracts, they adopted pagan Greco-Roman surnames like “Publius” and “Brutus.” And George Washington’s favorite play, one he had played to his troops to motivate them, was Cato the Younger about a pagan warrior who would rather commit suicide (a very un-Christian act, by the way) than submit to political tyranny. This anecdote shows how a pagan-world view, in tension with traditional Christianity, was very much part of the spirit of the American Founding.
Common Law refers to judge-made law in England as it evolved over hundreds of years. Many of the classic “rights of Englishmen” discussed in the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and state constitutions derive from the common law. William Blackstone was an English jurist who was the expert the Founders turned to for their knowledge of the common law.
Whig principles, like common law principles, derive from England. However, they were more radical and politically dissident. The Whig Party in England was largely responsible for the Glorious Revolution in 1688. And they produced a long line of pro-dissent, pro-political liberty literature that the American Founders had at their fingertips. Notable British Whig figures include John Milton, Algernon Sidney, John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, Benjamin Hoadly, Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, and James Burgh. Some of these figures also qualify as men of the Enlightenment. Most of them identified as Christians and quite a few were ministers and theologians (though they were disproportionately Unitarian). As you can see, many of these categories like “Enlightenment,” “Whig” and “Christian” aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.
America’s Founders, their British Whig counterparts and the ministers and theologians they followed and who supported them cited the Bible and their understanding of the Christian religion for the cause of republicanism and political liberty. I see what America’s Founders did as something new – an 18th Century phenomenon – and arguably they did too; that’s why they called the American Founding a “Novus Ordo Seclorum” or “new order for the ages.” The Bible and the Christian religion, however, were old. Thus, I see them engaging in unorthodox hermeneutics to try to make the Bible speak more to political liberty and republicanism than in reality it does. However, they engaged in similar anachronistic “revisionism” when looking back to the Ancient Greco-Roman democracies and republics. Protestantism, as an event of political dissidence, as opposed to an orthodox Christian theology, most greatly impacted the American Founding and the creation of liberal democracy.
The most important component of the American Founding, in my opinion, was Enlightenment. Enlightenment defines as human progress through the untrammeled use of man’s reason. They believed man’s reason was so keen that it could look to all sources and pick out what was rational or useful and discard what was irrational or superstitious. Enlightenment was what made the synthesis possible. And man’s reason was the ultimate lens through which all sources were to be viewed. Noah Webster, when defending the US Constitution in 1787, citing mainly pagan sources, stated that they consulted the wisdom of all ages and in the Constitution contained an “empire of reason.” A better statement of Enlightenment could not be found.
John Locke, discussed above, was probably the quintessential philosopher of the Enlightenment. Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau were also important; though America’s Founders tended not to speak too highly of them. Hobbes was important because he first posited the concept of the “state of nature”/social contract and rights, key to Locke’s teachings on government. Rousseau likewise invoked the “state of nature.” Though articulated in different ways by each of the three philosophers, the idea of “the state of nature”/social contract and rights was an entirely Hobbsean construct, not used in the parlance of classical or Biblical politics.
Rousseau’s powerful ideas were probably absorbed through osmosis. If you asked them, America’s Founders would deny that they followed him. However, their idea of a generic monotheistic “public religion” that posits the existence of an overriding Providence who rewards good and punishes evil is nearly identical to Rousseau’s idea of a civil religion.
Other important Enlightenment philosophers who influenced the American Founding include Isaac Newton, Baron De Montesquieu and Adam Smith.
In your blog, you often write about broad issues but you also get down to fine detail. One of the finer points that you've addressed is how to define the religious beliefs of certain Founding Fathers such as Jefferson. In doing so, you often refer to Dr. Gregg Frazer's term "theistic rationalist". What's theistic rationalism and how does it differ from deism? Which of the FF do you think can best be described as theistic rationalists?
Dr. Frazer defines theistic rationalism as a mean between Christianity and Deism – a hybrid if you will – with rationalism as the trumping element. I first read his article summarizing his PhD thesis on Claremont’s website when I was initially deeply delving into what America’s Founders really believed. I saw they didn’t seem to be Christians in the traditional sense, that they had things in common with the Deists (for instance, their confidence in man’s reason, looking to nature to understand God), but were not Deists as strictly defined. All of the notable FFs with the exception of Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen, including Jefferson and Franklin seemed to constantly talk of an active intervening God, not a cold distant watchmaker, which is what I learned a Deist is supposed to be. And if God intervenes in man’s affairs, then prayer is a rational activity. Deists aren’t supposed to pray but the key founders prayed! There are a few other differences between Deism and theistic rationalism. The theistic rationalists also were more likely to identify as “Christians” not “Deists.” Indeed, because they thought of themselves as “rational Christians” or “Unitarian Christians,” I might, in other contexts, say they qualify as “Christians” in some broad, loose, sense. However, the Christian right, who most adamantly claim the Founders as Christians, tend to take their faith very seriously and define it strictly. Evangelicals and Catholics define Christianity according to its Trinitarian orthodoxy. Other groups, like the Mormons, might come along claiming to be Christians, but because they reject orthodox Trinitarianism, they don’t qualify as “Christians” as traditionally defined. It is in a similar sense that the theistic rationalists don’t qualify as “Christian.” Among other things, America’s key Founders rejected original sin, the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, eternal damnation, and infallibility of the Bible. This is why honest evangelicals like Dr. Gregg Frazer, or honest traditional Catholics like Dr. Robert Kraynak, understand America’s key Founders – Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and a few others – as not Christian regardless of whether they understood themselves to be Christian in their own way.
I used to be, although no longer am, surprised when I discover that someone doesn't know that the Christian deity is not invoked in the Constitution. How did our founding document end up being secular in nature?
That’s a really good question. I’m not sure why they didn’t invoke God in the Constitution. To tell the truth, they never told! Hamilton was purportedly asked and replied “we forgot.” However that story has no basis in the primary sources. Some argue that they wanted to establish the United States as a godless republic. Others argue they just wanted to leave religion to the states. Madison argued in his Memorial and Remonstrance that the best way to safeguard religious rights – or the unalienable rights of conscience – was for government not to take cognizance of religion. Well, by leaving God out of the Constitution, they succeeded in not taking cognizance of Him. My opinion would be close to that – the Founders were greatly concerned with religious rights and wanted to take sectarian disputes out of politics. Leaving God out of the Constitution, forbidding religious tests or laws respecting an establishment of religion and guaranteeing the free exercise thereof were the means they used to achieve those ends. Though many religious conservative ministers of the day noticed that God was left out of the Constitution and warned the US would pay the price for so “offending Providence.”
Did the FF argue about the validity of religion/various religions amongst themselves? What views did they have about the role of religion in public life?
Oh sure. There were plenty of orthodox Christians who believed that to be the only true religion. But they tended to play secondary roles. They include Sam Adams, John Jay, Patrick Henry and Elias Boudinat. The key Founders were theistic rationalists – Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin. And Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen were strict Deists and very hostile to organized religion in general. As such, these different factions argued amongst one another. With some exception most of the Founders agreed the right kind of religion (that which was totally voluntary and didn’t believe in conversion by the sword) was good for society and preferred society to be religious. However they disagreed on whether state governments should fund or support religion. Madison and Jefferson said no. Washington and J. Adams said yes. In principle they wanted everyone’s rights to be respected including those of atheists and still have a healthy religious populace. It’s how to balance those two desires that gets us in to trouble both back then as well as today. Madison in his Detached Memoranda realized that the presence of Congressional Chaplains really didn’t, in principle, adequately respect the equal rights of all. Though, in practice they were there for the time being.
In your opinion, what should be the role of religion in public life today?
My personal preference is government, when it speaks, remain neutral. And that means it can’t say “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, because that is not neutral. However, I’m not sure if such neutrality is constitutionally mandated. When it comes to tangible rights, like government funds, then yes, I absolutely believe the original meaning of the Constitution requires government to be neutral between all of the various religions and between religion and non-religion. The best way for government to be neutral and still permit public expression of religion is to make public forums available on a generally neutral basis. Someone wants to donate their dollars for a Ten Commandments monument in a public park, fine. Then let another group put up a monument right next to it with the words of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion.”
When I was in the 8th grade, my Social Studies class for the whole year was devoted to helping me pass the Constitution test. If I didn't, I would not be allowed to proceed to the 9th grade. We began with the Colonial Period, went up to the Revolutionary Era, and ended by going through the Constitution article by article, section by section. What do you think about civics education in America today? How much do the students at Mercer Community College know of the topics about which you blog?
I generally try to keep my two worlds separate. Some of my research, I worry, is a bit too focused and not that which interests typical community college students. Most of them wouldn’t know what the Arian or Socinian heresies are for instance, or see what the big deal is if you deny Jesus’ full Godhood. Though, when I visited a public lecture at Princeton, Lockean scholar, Professor Paul Sigmund seemed impressed when I asked him whether he thought Locke was an Arian in his Christology. My students know I am interested in religion and I often discuss religion when relevant to course material. Some religious issues are genuinely interesting (like end times prophesies and whatnot) and I always try to “edutain” in my lectures. I have a pretty strong knowledge of pop culture and a sophomoric component to my sense of humor, so I like to use examples from Family Guy, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, classic movie comedies like Trading Places, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Animal House, and Caddyshack.
Sometimes I worry my blog is too opinionated for class discussion and I’m extremely cautious about not proselytizing my politics. On a few occasions I reveal I’m a libertarian, but when it comes to discussing controversial issues, I try to remain neutral like Brian Lamb on CSPAN (and because I’m neither a partisan Democrat nor Republican, it’s easier for me to play that role). Presently I teach law and business courses and the political issues come up tangentially. Though I am going to start teaching legal issues in political science classes as of this summer and perhaps I will talk more about my blogging then. Though there is a chapter in my Business Law I course on constitutional law and I make sure the students study who is on the Supreme Court, what their positions are and I test them on it. It’s a little sad the way they tend NOT to know about Court membership. Interestingly, Justice Alito, like many of them, grew up in Hamilton Township and graduated from Steinert High School. That usually helps them to remember him.
Lastly, have you been watching the John Adams mini-series on HBO? If so, what do you think about it?
I don’t have HBO so I haven’t seen it (other than clips on YouTube). I’ve admired Paul Giamatti’s work ever since his role in Howard Stern’s movie and I look forward to viewing it when it comes out on DVD.
Madison Public Library Looks to Become Condo Owner
Yesterday afternoon I attended my first ever Library Board meeting. Although it was the board's normal monthly meeting, the agenda had a big ticket item on it: "Consider authorization to develop an RFP for redevelopment of the Central Library site to include a new Central Library". As 4:30 rolled around, the public seating began to fill up and another row of chairs was added. I think I ended up sitting next to Terrence Wall himself. Meaning no offense to Mr. Wall, I must say that I was surprised to see someone even more sartorially challenged than myself. With that lime green jacket and orange pants, he would have looked at home in Willy Wonka's accounting department.
The meeting started fairly promptly and it didn’t take long for me to be amazed with the board. I'm a board member of Madison's Polish Heritage Club and our monthly meetings last 2-3 hours. The minutes from last month's Library Board gathering showed that it lasted one hour and it was easy to see why. They whizzed through 2 or 3 agenda items lickety-split. Public comments were the first order of new business.
First to be recognized was Robert Halloway. He didn't speak but wanted it known that he wanted to keep the Central Library. The problem was that I wasn't sure what he meant. Keep the existing building? Keep it in its own building? Next was Tom McKenna (methinks) of the Meadowridge Community Association. He spoke about the plans to expand the Meadowridge branch. McKenna began by noting that there were many people in his neighborhood who believed that the library was going to be shut down. Next he explained the neighborhood residents wanted a multi-purpose room to be a part of any expansion as opposed to one dedicated to a specific activity such as youth programs. The last member of the public to speak was Dennis de Nure. de Nure spoke in favor of including a Madison Historical Museum in the proposed development.
The next item on the agenda concerned $8,000 that needed to be redirected from the New Far West Branch Library project to the Sequoya Branch Expansion project. The Common Council had apparently questioned this item so the board put their heads together to come up with a plan to present to the CC in order to justify this money. It would go towards a green copy center in Sequoya. The CC can expect to hear the following justification: the planned automated green copy center will free up library staff and save at least $3,000/year.
The marquee item followed. Would the board pursue Wall's proposal? A gentleman from Madison's Engineering Department began the discussion of this issue by explaining how city property is disposed of. First it needs to be declared surplus and the city's Economic Development Director notified. Next, other city agencies are notified and they get to chime in as to whether they want it. For the sale at hand, this step would essentially be skipped. The alderperson and Director of Planning would then determine if the property would be sold directly or via bidding. A direct sale triggers the RFP (Request for Proposal) process. Mayor Dave would convene a seven-person Criteria and Selection Committee consisting of the alderperson in whose district the property lies, a resident of the neighborhood, a mayoral representative, two additional alders, and someone else whom I think is a member of the public. (My notes fail me.) The committee would establish point criteria for proposals and make recommendations to the Common Council who would ultimately have to approve the sale.
This process caused the board some consternation because the aforementioned committee could take control of the sale process out of their hands. The board president, Tripp Widder, asked if the board could approach the mayor to see if he was amenable to giving them 4 or 5 of the seats on the committee. Board member Dave Wallner suggested that the board ask for an exemption to the above process and this turned the discussion to the feasibility of getting such an exemption. The city engineer noted that the Parks Division once tried to do an end run around the process and failed. Larry Palm, also an alderman, noted that the library works under different state statutes than other city groups. For instance, he noted that the library operates under different debt restructuring rules than the parks folks. (I believe it was debt restructuring, anyway.) As Palm was saying this, I noticed movement to my left. Turning my head, I saw Mr. Wall nodding his head with his eyes wide open – he had just learned something new. The debate went on for a while before mayoral assistant Ray Harmon spoke. He said that Mayor Dave was amenable to giving the board a majority of seats on the commission. With this out of the way, discussion on financing proceeded.
One board member asked about an ideal budget for the new library. $20+ million was the answer. Widder asked a representative from the Madison Public Library Foundation about new fundraising goals. He was told that at least $5 million in donations would be needed before they could move forward with the proposals. Palm noted that the library would make $3-5 million if the property were to be sold and that this was the chief difference between the RFP route and building a new facility but keeping the property. Barb Karlen noted that Wall's proposal was more glamorous and sexy and that this boded well for the selling of naming rights.
But Widder urged caution. Sadly, he noted that the fundraising campaign for the Sequoya branch took a very long time to raise a paltry-by-comparison $1 million and that $4-5 million would take too long. He emphasized that a generous donor was needed and should be found with some haste as Wall has an anchor tenant who cannot wait forever.
Wallner then motioned that the board declare the property surplus and to begin the RFP process. The motion carried unanimously with one abstention – Allen Arnsten, a lawyer, who counted Wall as a client.
At this point, most of the seats for the public were vacated. All the gentlemen in suits & ties left as did Mr. Wall with his lime green jacket after having shook hands with the city engineer and chatted a bit.
I've already voiced my discontent with Wall's proposal so I won't reiterate here. But I do think the main lesson is that Madison doesn't show very much love for its public library system. In the Library Facilities Report that followed the RFP discussion, we got to hear how the resources at the Lakeview branch are stretched to the max while computer classes at Hawthorne art booked weeks in advance; Sequoya is the busiest branch with 90% of items in certain collections being checked out at any given time; the Alicia Ashman branch draws 20% of its patrons from Middleton; and the Monroe Street branch sees its circulation and visits increasing every year. Area residents love the Madison libraries, to be sure, but they apparently don't open up their pocketbooks for them very readily. The Sequoya branch fundraising took a long period of time and previous efforts to fund a new Central Library while retaining ownership of the land never found an über-bibliopatron. It was noted that people tend to give money directed to their local branch.
While the RFP process goes forward, nothing is a done deal yet. The anchor tenant could pull out, the library might not be able to raise the $5 million – nothing is set in stone. Yet it looks likely that the Central Library will become a condo tenant.