Friday, December 31, 2010

Year End Wrap Up

If I learned anything from "my year of reading year of books" it is that no year-of memoir is complete without a final reflection.

What I learned:
Of course I learned a bit of U.S. history. But the most interesting thing I learned was about the history of the civil rights movement. Several of the books I read about the south treated this topic and what surprised me the most was that much of what was made out to appear to be local law standing up to "the feds" was really staged - choreographed right down to how many deputies could have thier hands on their gun holsters, and how many could actually have their guns in their hands. These things were negotiated completely for show. If it looked like violence might break out, things were put on hold until another time.

What I would do differently:
I realized early on that the state anniversaries were not spread out evenly and caused a few crunches that I could not keep up with. If I were to give advice to anyone taking on a similar project I would suggest that they do one state a week, perhaps going in order of how they entered the Union - starting with Delaware and ending with Hawaii.

I tried my best to post something on the actual anniversary of statehood, a few times, though, I was late, and when I was on vacation I really didn't worry about it too much, I just caught up when I had a chance. If I had been true to the project I would have never let it slip. But, after all, it was just a goofy blog. Ultimately, though I did read books on all 50 states (plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.) and watch a movie for each, and eat or drink something inspired by, or from that state before the year's end.

My next blog will be similar in theme to this one. "Una Nueva Receta Cada Semana" (One New Recipe a Week) is inspired by one of my former Spanish professors, Bob Phillips, who loved to cook. Mostly I will be blogging about food, but will include reviews of any food-related books, or movies I watch. I will be reading the food books aloud to James so he may have his own insights on those as well.

Finally, I have this to say - this project was a lot more fun because I had a great partner to help me with it. Thanks, James.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Texas Size

To comment about the size of Texas may be to lack imagination, but as a geographer, scale matters almost as much as place, and I have thought a lot about the scale of Texas over the years. Years before living in Texas, I read an article -- I wish I could remember where -- that claimed that Texas is big enough that many Texans do not really consider a 100-mile buffer around the edge to really be part of the state. Too far to the east, and one is really in a spillover area of Louisiana, and the western point terminating at El Paso is really part of New Mexico. Similarly, the north is more like Oklahoma than "real" Texas, and the area within 100 miles of the Rio Grande is in many ways part of Mexico. With north-south and east-west dimensions exceeding 700 miles, there is certainly plenty of room to make this claim. (As I recall, the author was from somewhere near Beaumont, and felt a bit like an outsider when she moved to the center of the state.)

Most South Texans know -- though many Northerners do not -- that the 100-mile buffer is taken quite literally by the United States Government, which operates a checkpoint in Falfurrias, 70 miles from the Mexican border, at which persons and vehicles are searched just as though they were coming in from another country!
The first time I was in Texas, it was to pass through the Dallas-Ft. Worth (pronounced WOH-uth) International Airport, known to all as DFW on our way to and from our summer sojourn in Mexico in 1989. When I started my County Map Project the following year, I learned that the sprawling DFW encompasses a significant part of two counties. By then I had passed through on several other trips, and had taxied so much around that airport that I felt justified in counting visits to both Dallas and Tarrant Counties. Years later, I realized that the enormous American Airlines double terminal was just one of several on the site, and that the small train that connects the two is complemented by another train that reaches distant terminals.

Some claim that visiting an airport does not "count" when considering the places one has known. I disagree, because airports are in places and hold lessons about them. The ample sprawl of DFW itself is distinctive, as are the accents, hats, boots, and belt buckles that can be found in the terminal. Equally distinctive is the tremendous number of in-state connecting flights being announced at any given time. DFW is a national and international hub, to be sure, but it is possible -- and common -- for people to be connecting to a couple dozen Texas destinations from any in-bound flight. That is a big state!

The first time I was in Texas outside the airport came in 1990, within a year of that first airport transfer. Dry cleaner investigations were among my specialties at the environmental consulting firm where I worked in Cincinnati, and when a project near the US-Mexico border in the small town of Mercedes became available, I quickly volunteered. This was also when a Saturday stayover would dramatically reduce airfare, and I volunteered for that, too. This gave me the opportunity to spend a couple extra days exploring the Rio Grande Valley. In the space of a couple days, I explored "the Valley" from McAllen in the west (where I had to visit the public library as part of my research) to South Padre Island in the east (where I enjoyed the waves and some great seafood). Of course, I also took time to park the car in Brownsville so I could walk across to the unfortunately-named city of Matamoros.

A few years later, we were living in Tucson and -- like most of our friends -- working as substitute teachers/librarians. We were searching nationwide and internationally for jobs, and I was scanning the few internet-based resources available at the time (this was before graphics or search engines, or even the Web itself, had caught on). I found a listing for a librarian in McAllen, Texas! Not only did I know where that was: I had actually been in the library! Before we knew it, we were making the long drive to McAllen. Actually, we drove to McAllen, then to visit Maryland back home to Tucson and then back to McAllen, with a couple job-search-related side trips thrown in. This is when we started to learn something about the size of Texas!

We lived in Texas just three years, but it made quite an impression in a number of ways. We settled in the Rio Grande Valley, in the town of Pharr, which had just opened a bridge into Reynosa in Mexico. Our idea of a reasonable distance to drive for something had increased when we lived in Arizona, but it really took on new dimensions in Texas. We lived close to our main jobs, as we've always tried to do, but I started taking on part-time teaching jobs -- just to gain the experience -- that were pretty far from home. For several semesters, I taught one night a week at Texas A & M University - Kingsville, Alice Extension. This met in a high school in a declining oil-service and cattle-auction town that was 108 miles from my house! I taught just one night a week for paltry pay plus a mileage allowance, and stopped at an interior border crossing each time. I eventually learned that a necktie and a university parking sticker made these stops much simpler.

I have lived in seven states, and Texas is nearly as big as all the others combined! With over a quarter million square miles in Texas, every family in the United States could have an acre or more, if they could just get to it.

We also started attending religious services more than 20 miles from home (Quaker meeting in private homes). Eventually we adopted an attitude that I was realizing was somewhat common in Texas, actually flying within the state to visit friends and/or a museum. It is a big place! We also explored quite a bit by car, eventually visiting a slim majority of counties in the state.

One night while driving to Alice (which is west of Corpus Christi), I heard reports on a national radio program of flooding in "southern Texas." I was 100 miles north of the border, and these floods were in Houston, more than 200 miles further north!

Because so much of the southern portion of Texas is north of our old home, I took to calling the place we lived (shown in blue on the map) Way South Texas. I eventually cut my teaching commute in half, when I moved to The University of Texas at Brownsville in Partnership with Texas Southmost College. That is the real name of the place: UTB-TSC, where I had international students who could walk to my class from Mexico!

One of our friends in McAllen once commented that Texas is so big that he had never left it. Driving, it would take a long day to reach any other state, it is true. We had to remind him that he had left the state, though: he had been to Mexico many times!

Texas is going to be the focus of a lot of political attention and speculation over the next couple years, as its already-large population has grown enough that it will be allocated four additional seats in Congress. My recent article on Gerrymandering (invented and still practiced expertly in Massachusetts) describes why I don't think all four of those seats will ultimately go to the same party.

Please note: Although we left Texas thirteen years ago after living there only three, it remains important to me in many ways. I stay in touch with some great friends there and follow developments, particularly in the border area. Search Texas posts on my blog for some of these stories. 

Texas - December 29, 1845

It seems good and right that our last celebration of the year is for a place to which we have some deep emotional ties. Although James and I only lived in Texas for three years, it is where we first attended Quaker meeting and began to internalize simple living. And, as we like to tell Paloma, although she was born in New England, she was conceived in Texas. Lately she has been embracing her Texas "heritage". I think the recent New England snow storm has her thinking that white Christmases maybe aren't all they are cracked up to be. We lived in the Rio Grande Valley (or just "the Valley" to those of us who are most familiar with it), in a town called Pharr, about 10 miles from the Mexico border, and 60 miles inland from the Gulf Coast. James  taught at UT-Brownsville, which is also known as Texas Southmost College (really!) You may hear folks say Texas is like a whole other country, but the Valley, was like another country all together. The U.S.-Mexico border is a surreal place, rife with magic realism, and unexplained phenomema. We had a visit from the chupacabras during the summer of 1996: he sucked the blood out of livestock and left them dead. James also reminded me recenlty that the San Juan Shrine was hit by an airplane in 1970, and no one was hurt. There was also a story of some sort of big prehistoric bird that flew around during the 1970s. The Valley is also a place of extremes - temperature (heat), and  poverty.

We were able to visit some other places in Texas during the three years that we lived there, including Houston, Galveston, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso, Midland/Odessa, and Dallas/Ft. Worth. Each place has its own charm - some more charming than others. I expect that if we'd lived in Austin, we might have tried to find a way to stay. But what I can say about the Valley is that in this neck of "the friendship state" the people were especially friendly; I could get fresh, local produce year round; I had a great job there at the McAllen Memorial Library; and James and I learned a lot about our own spirtuality by attending Quaker meeting (a.k.a Society of Friends), where we also made some good friends.

Two things I did find to be true about Texans: one they really do like BIG things (be sure not to miss the World's Largest Killer Bee in Hidalgo); and two, they really like things that are shaped like Texas. You can buy Texas-shaped pasta, corn chips, and stepping stones for your garden.

Beware the Chupacabras!

My favorite thing at Christmastime is driving around the neighborhood to look at Christmas lights. When I found out that there was a book about over-the-top Christmas displays in Frisco, Texas I knew I had found the right book to end this project. Hank Stuever spent the Christmas of 2006 tagging along with Tammie Parnell as she decorated other peoples' homes; helping Jeff Trykoski set up the biggest light diplay on the block; and trailing along on shopping trips and church work with Carroll Cavazos and her family. The way this suburb of Dallas is described in Stuever's book reminds me of everything I don't like about Texas, namely that there is a lot of BIG AND LOUD there. Stuever begins by describing standing in line with Cavazos at Best Buy with Cavazos on Black Friday morning. Don't even get me started about Black Friday. That's Buy Nothing Day to me. Getting up before dawn on a non-work day to stand in line in the cold is one tradition I just don't understand at all. Later in the book he describes a similar scene at Target on the day after Christmas. Yeah, I'm in bed then, too.

Tammie Parnell makes about $30,000 each Christmas season helping her neighbors uber-decorate their homes for the seaon. Once again, I just don't get it. One client laments that she really needed help with the "theme". Huh? Isn't the theme of Christmas "Peace or Earth" or "Goodwill to all" or "God bless us everyone"? Something like that? I was reminded of the time I took the Bridgewater Garden Club Christmas home tour, about 10 years ago. One house had six Christmas trees displayed. Each one with a different theme. I remember the girl's bedroom had a Barbie theme tree; the boy's bedroom was "camoflague" theme; and the kitchen was Disney. I think the "media room" was probably a sports theme. I found it all pretty uninspiring, and was surprised to hear other people say what a great "decorator" the home owner was. A great consumer perhaps, but it isn't hard to decorate when you all you do order "one of each". I was not surprised, however, to read a description of a children's holiday shop experience in Stuever's book that was really no different from my own some 40-odd years ago; or that of my daughter when she was in elementary school - mini shops set up with cheap stuff so that we can train kids to buy at Christmas time, with a gift wrap at the end.  Probably you think I sound a lot like a Scrooge from this, and I will admit to buying almost no Christmas gifts. I am neither a giver, nor a receiver. Which is not to say I don't like Christmas, I just don't like the gift exchange, so I don't participate in it. There are gifts for my daughter when she comes down the stairs on Christmas morning, but not the piles of presents that the folks in Frisco, Texas go for. Read my sermon The Best Gift for more insight on this.

There were two mentions of libraries in this book - one was of a school librarian, the other was a decription of Stuever's visit to the library's microfilm collection to read up on the history of Frisco.

I had a weird deja vu experience reading a passage about the Oprah Winfrey show in Tinsel. If you read my Illinois post you know that I read Robyn Okrant's book Living Oprah earlier this year. In it, Okrant describes learning that her poop should be S-shaped, and later describes the excitement she feels when she accomplishes this feat. Stuever mentions being at the Trykoski home when this exact episode is on. By the way, Oprah's poo is C-shaped. I have to be honest here, I don't pay that much attention to mine.

Screen Door Jesus
We saw a preview of this a few months ago and when I realized it was about Texas I added it to our Netflix list. It seemed like it would be a quirky, indie film - right up my cup of tea. It was full of quirky characters, but it was hard to follow. There were a lot of different stories going on, and they did not all appear to be connected. An image of Jesus on the screen door of Mother Harper creates an uproar in the small east Texas town of Bethlehem. The sick, the infirm, the faithful, and the curious come and stand on her lawn trying to get their turn in front of the icon. Although Mother Harper at first feels blessed she comes to resent all the people keeping her awake and ruining her gardens. She and a neighbor come up with a plan to run them off. This movie touched on themes of racism, fundamentalism, and hypocracy.

We found out while watching the credits that the film was based on the "short stories" of Christopher Cook, which helped explain why the film seemed so disjointed.

Of course the phenomenom of seeing religious images in windows is not limited to Texas. Two years ago, there was a lot of attention paid to the appearance of the Virgin Mary in a window at the Milton Hospital  in Massachusetts. The image looks more like a ghost to me.

South Texas shares a deep connection with Mexico, and a Christmas tradition they both share is making tamales. It is a tradition we enjoy, and since Texas day fell during the holiday season we invited some friends over today to share tamales with us. James begins making tamales in the morning and spends most of the day working on them. This is after he spends an afternoon in search of corn husks to wrap them in. Each year he goes back to the store where he got them the year before, only to find that that store no longer stocks them, and he has to go out searching again. He believes he has found a "muy autentico" place this time, and may be in luck when he goes back there next year. We use a recipe I found online from Texas Coop Power in 2003. I was not able to find the link again, although Texas Coop Power does still have a website with recipes, they just don't seem to go back as far as the 2003 issue. This recipe calls for chicken, cooking oil, flour water, bouillon cubes, green chilis, garlic, oregano, chili pepper, cumin, tomato sauce and cayenne pepper. In addition The corn "masa" calls for lard (we substitue Crisco), salt, "harina" (corn flour) and water.  The ingredients are wrapped in corn husks and steamed. To share in our feast we had seven friends over, including our favorite native Texan, Amelia.

Except for a final reflective post, which I will write on the last day of the year, this is it for my Celebrating the States project.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Iowa Memoir (Lite)

"I" for Iowa -- the only entry in my County Map Project
in which my county map resembles the state initial.
At least, it seems to be the only one.
As the only member of the Hayes-Bohanan family who has been to Iowa, I decided I should write a bit about my experiences there. "Bit" is the operative word, since I have been there six times in the late 1970s, each just long enough to cross the state the short way (about 200 miles). Of the 99 counties in Iowa, I've managed to be in only 10, despite all those traverses, and since these were all in my high school years about a decade before becoming a geographer, I have to confess that I learned essentially nothing from the experiences.

For the teenage me, Iowa was just a place that needed to be crossed when going from Kansas City, Missouri to Minnesota, which I did for three distinct purposes. The first was to attend a camp at St. Olaf College in Northfield. The camp was sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, for which my mother worked in the Kansas City headquarters. I was much more a Christian than an athlete, but a scholarship was arranged for my brother (very much an athlete) and I to attend, so we took a school bus overnight from Kansas City. I remember that some of us tried to ride in the luggage bins, and I remember a rest stop on I-35 in Ankeny, and I remember that the scant accommodations there confirmed our chauvinistic banter about how little the state as a whole had to offer. Of course, that judgment says far more about our teenage selves than it does about Iowa, one way or the other.

The second crossing -- along that same narrow groove of I-35 -- was on a mission trip from Kansas City to the suburbs of St. Paul. A mission trip to the suburbs might seem like an oxymoron, but it reveals something of a different kind of chauvinism. We were young Baptists, after all, called by God to convert the Lutherans and Catholics of the frozen north to Christianity. Again, the experience taught me more about myself than I taught any Minnesotans about God. Iowa was just part of that journey, this time by day and in a church bus.

The third crossing was a bit more quixotic, as it turns out. As our church in Kansas City was developing its connections with a host church in Minnesota, my brother and I were developing connections with a pair of sisters there: the daughters, in fact, of the minister. We somehow convinced a young man in our church to drive us there for a visit in his Monte Carlo. Again, the trip was full of tough lessons, and what I remember about Iowa is that we could not get through it fast enough. I remember encouraging my friend to push that Monte Carlo along as fast as prudence -- and the proliferation of Iowa state troopers -- would allow.

Iowa - December 28, 1846

Iowa is a state I have not yet been to, but my cousin Lori biked across it, twice. James has been there, but not much more than I have. He will have a supplementary post.

Dewey: the Library Cat
Dewey was found in the bookdrop of the Spencer, Iowa library on a freezing cold January morning in 1988. He was adopted by the whole town and spent the rest of his life living in the library, to the delight of the patrons and staff. Dewey always seemed to know who needed him, and had therapeutic qualities. The book tells his story, and that of Vicki Myron, the library director, as well as providing some historical, and social insights into the town of Spencer, and the rest of the world, which was fascinated with Dewey's story. Dewey was featured on national television and in a Japanese documentary about working cats. This book was written for middle-school readers and is based on Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat who Touched the World which was written for an older audience. This is a sweet story, and a bit of a tear-jerker. There are also several picture books for children about Dewey's life available as well. I am looking forward to seeing the movie which is due out early next year.

King Corn
Well, you know the old saying "you are what you eat" - it turns out college friends Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis are both giant ears of corn.This is not because the like to eat corn on the cob, or corn chowder, or creamed corn, or even corn chips, but rather because so much of their food is corn in disguise. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is the sweetner of choice for most soft drinks, and junk food. By an interesting coincidence, both young men have a great-grandfather from Greene County Iowa so it is there they choose to rent an acre of land to grow corn and find out where it goes. They team up with a local farmer who rents them the land and helps them to sow, cultivate and reap the crop. They learn a lot about farming, not the least of which is that Iowa corn farmers make their money from government subsidies, not from selling the grain. Also that what the government is subsidizing can hardly be called food. They taste test their corn and spit it right back out. Other locals agree that the corn is not edible. The corn they grow either used to feed beef or is highly processed to become HFCS. The two young men are unsuccessful in trying to get a tour of a processing plant, but do manage to find a scientist who will give them the formula to make it themselves - a nasty business that. They also manage to score an interview with Earl Butz, who was Secretary of Agriculture during the Nixon administration. Butz explains to them why the government subsidies evolved they way they did. I suppose some will watch this movie and say that they will never look at food again the same way, for me though, that boat had sailed. That is not to say I didn't learn some new things, and it did solidify my desire to eat more locally produced, unprocessed food.

Because HFCS has been given such a bad rap there is some movement to changing the name, as if that would make everything better. See this New York Times article to vote on the name you like best.

Although food containing HCFS would have been an authentic choice for today's consumable, we decided to eat real corn instead. James made corn chowder with my recipe of vegetable stock, onions, potatoes, corn, 1/2 & 1/2 and greens. The recipe has evolved from one I got out of the Boston Globe a few years ago, and only resembles it in passing now. He also made our favorite skillet corn bread - I hope everyone has learned by now the importance of the cast iron skillet. It is never too late to begin cooking with one. We like the recipe from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The United States of Autocomplete

James brought this item to my attention this morning from the Brainiac section of the Boston Globe. The United States of Autocomplete is a map made by Dorothy Gambrell by doing Google Searches on states' names.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

New Jersey - December 18, 1787

When I was a senior in high school my boyfriend went to Ryder College in New Jersey. I don't know how many times I asked my mother if I could take a train or bus up to see him, but was never allowed. I would like to go on record that I recently allowed my 13-year old daughter to take the train, by herself, to New Jersey to visit her friends from camp.

Jersey Diners
Peter Genovese's book is a kitschy, fun read, with a lot of photos. He visited all of New Jersey's 570 diners in operation at the time he was researching the book, which was in the mid 1990s. He talked to waitresses, cooks, owners, and customers, took pictures and otherwise researched the history of the diners. I had a lot of book marks in this one when I was finished. One of the first things I noticed was that he said there will be "no quotes from scholars..." by way of saying there won't be any of that fanciful languge but then, on the very next page he quotes Rutger's University professor Michael Aaron Rockland (let's call him a "scholar") as saying that New Jersey is "the roadside pop architecture capital of the world." I noticed one other comment by a scholar from a Yale University professor emeritus "Baeder's paintings differ from those of most of his photo-realist or magic-realist contemporaries. ' Bader is not haunted like Hopper by a sense of something empty, hollow and solitary in the American experience. Instead, he is hopeful, a painter-poet who makes us see the beauty of common things..." Nope, nothing fanciful here.

There was a bit about coffee in this book. My favorite quotes were these:
From a 1950s training manual - "Don't put salt in the coffee! If salt helped make a good cup of coffee, the coffee companies would be the first ones to add it."

From The Diner, a 1947 trade magazine - "Coffee has probably affected restaurant profits more than any other single factor. Good coffee keeps old customers and makes new ones; poor coffee drives the customers away"

From a customer at the Summitt Diner - "Drink too much. Have ten cups before ten. Couple when I get up, couple on the way over. And I'll bring five with me out of here." The following line in the book indicates that the Summit lines up styrofoam cups on the counter for take out customers. As for me, I'd rather skip coffee all together than drink it from styrofoam. Blech.

A turkish proverb: "Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love."

Other things I found noteworthy in this book were a mention of county maps as "something seen at too few diners."

One aptonym : Short order cook Lee Slingerland

One mention of Baltimore (my hometown) regarding "...Tim, a former 7-up plant manager in Baltimore..." Since I used to live less than a mile from said plant, it was made all the more exciting to me.

One mention of the Big Dig in Boston "the former Ono diner in Ono, Pennsylvania [was turned] into the Big Dig diner, to be located at the entrance to Boston's Harbon Tunnel." I felt a pilgrimage coming on, but found this blog post indicating that the Big Dig diner has already been moved since the publication of the book.

One mention of Cyndi Lauper's music video Time after Time, which was filmed in a Jersey diner.

And, one mention of librarians - Genovese knows that librarians are his friends and thanks especially "Winnie Zagariello and Betty Selingo, the best librarians in New Jersey", Well done my friends!

Sherry Swanson, recently released on parole for drug charges, is looking to reconnect with her young daughter, Alexis. There are tensions between Sherry and her sister-in-law, Lynette, who has been caring for Alexis, and Sherry has a hard time keeping clean once she is released. While it is clear that Sherry wants to be a good parent, and do well at her job in a daycare center, we see a very disturbing side of her. Beyond the drug use Sherry uses sex to get favors from men who are supposed to be working to help her. The fact that they readily accept her offers is troubling as well.

Bonus Movie:
While I was reading Jersey Diners I saw several mentions of movies, commercials and music videos that were filmed in New Jersey diners. Since I was also planning to prepare a Jersey diner meal, I thought I would just go for the theme and watch an additional movie that was filmed in a diner. I picked Baby It's You. I should have just left well enough alone. There was a scene inside the Roadside Diner, but there is not much good to say about this movie. It is an upper-class girl/working-class boy movie. The relationship is abusive, but I think the audience was just supposed to think that the girl needed to lighten up.  The young man -"the Sheik", named for a condom - alternately cheats, ignores, controls, and ransacks, but it seemed the audience was expected to still feel sorry for him when it was clear that his girlfriend outgrew him (or just got tired of being treated like crap). And she still gives him a last dance to remember her by. This was an '80s movie about the '60s and it is what one might expect. It stars Rosanna Arquette, which reminded me of her other New Jersey movie, Desperately Seeking Susan.

Best Tuna Melt (New Jersey Diner Style)
I couldn't resist this one when I found it once I read the Jersey Diner's book. Two changes I made to the recipe were using cheddar cheese instead of swiss, and leaving out the parsley. Otherwise I followed the recipe after some discussion with James about it. He is not generally a finicky eater, but when it comes to tuna salad he wants only tuna and mayonnaise. None of that celery business for him. I was prepared to make a separate tuna salad for him sans celery and onion, but he finally decided to make it a "cultural experience" and do it the Jersey Diner way. He wound up being "a clean plate ranger", although, I doubt I have converted him.