Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rhode Island - May 29, 1790

 When we moved to Massachusetts, we could see about 5 fuzzy channels on our television with the rabbit ears. One of them was channel 10 out of Providence. (We can't watch any, now). We actually watched a lot of television back then. Our newborn daughter almost never slept, and we could not afford to go out in any case. TV was cheap entertainment. One night when we were watching the late news on channel 10 we saw a story about Barnaby Evans, the artist who created Waterfire. We immediately made plans to see this fabulous display. Seeing Waterfire is worth a trip to Providence in and of itself. It is set up about a dozen times a year. Pyres are set in metal holders in the river and the fire reflects on the water, this is combined with beautiful music and a festival atmosphere to create a magical feeling.The wood is regularly replenished by some lucky folks who get to ride in boats throughout the evening. (I want that job). There are also gondola rides to be had for a price. I have not yet taken one, though. From Bridgewater, Providence is easier to get to than Boston, and in some ways more interesting. I love the Cable Car movie theater to see independent films; and Paloma and I got to see Wicked at the Providence Performing Arts Center last Christmas. I also enjoy going to Newport, Rhode Island for its  fabulous Cliff Walk past some elaborate mansions and Salve Regina College. T.F. Green airport is generally easier to fly in and out of than Logan. Green airport, is actually located in Warwick, Rhode Island
although it is called the Providence airport - go figure.

One night when we were at Waterfire James saw Providence's ex-mayor, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci through a restaurant window and pointed him out to me. He had actually net Cianci a few years earlier when NESTVAL (The New England and St. Lawrence Valley regional conference of the Association of American Geographers) met in Providence. After reading Mike Stanton's The Prince of Providence I am not at all surprised that the mayor made an appearance at this rather small meeting. The running joke about Cianci at City Hall was that he would "go to the opening of an envelope". His ego was both fragile and gigantic, a dangerous combination, which lead to his demise as mayor on two different occasions. The book was over 400 pages long and seemingly covered every underhanded manuver that Cianci pulled. Minor stunts, even those that were ethical or illegal, were just filler on the way to reading about the big stories, including beating up a romantic rival, which caused his first departure from office of the mayor, and bribe-taking, which caused the second. Although Ciani had plenty of money, and created a charity spaghetti sauce business (a la Newman's Own) in order to provide college scholarships, he was always on the take otherwise. No one could get a City contract without slipping something his way, and even a job at City Hall would cost the prospective employee several thousands of dollars. What was so fascinating about this book was that for many citizens of Providence, none of this mattered. They still loved "Buddy". He was affable in public, could talk as easily to the art students at RISD as he could to the ladies from the historical society, and he pulled off a Renaissance of downtown Providence that is akin to what I remember William Donald Shaeffer doing for Baltimore's Inner Harbor once upon a time. Quite a feat. Providence has become a destination.

James and colleague with "Buddy" c 2000

"All families suck" says the bartender to Italian-American brothers Anthony and Frankie in the romantic comedy A Wake in Providence. Anthony is humiliated in front of Alissa, his African-American girlfriend, whom he has brought to to meet his family for the first time to his grandfather's funeral, and Frankie reveals that he enjoys wearing women's undergarments to his extended family during dinner. This movie really could have just been a goofball comedy, and it did include the requisite "mob" jokes and some of the usual family jabs, but the story is more complex than that. I don't take complete stock in the bartender's philosophy, but I think his point, that if you don't expect anything from your family, you won't be disappointed is something to keep in mind.  Although Anthony gets the girl in the end, this is not your typical "boy loses girl movie". It is filmed in Providence, so those familiar with the city will get a charge out of seeing familiar landmarks.

Several weeks ago one of our colleagues told James about the Pawtucket, Rhode Island Winter Farmer's Market which takes place every Saturday from November to May. Since today was the last day of the market, and Rhode Island day, it seemed like a perfect day to visit. We arrived in Pawtucket an hour before the market opened so that we could have breakfast at the Classic Cafe, which James found online. At the market we picked up some local rhubarb, strawberries, cheese, herbs, and greens. I also learned, from Stanton's book, that Del's Frozen lemonade got its start in Cranston, Rhode Island, so a stop at a Del's stand was also in order while we were in town. I know I've bought Del's for my daughter before, but I don't actually think I had tried one before myself. I had a bit of a sore throat and the cirtrus-y coolness felt really good. Stanton also mentions that autocrat coffee syrup is a Rhode Island original. One of James' students told him about it when we first moved here, and we did try it then. Coffee syrup in milk is a treat enjoyed by many, but as much as the Hayes-Bohanan's are a coffee drinking people, we are not crazy about coffee milk ourselves. 

Wisconsin - May 29, 1848

Ahh, Wisconsin. How I love Wisconsin. James and I began our day drinking coffee from our Lawrence University mugs. Lawrence is located in Appleton, Wisconsin where my favorite cousins live. You will find it on the map below right at the northern tip of Lake Winnebago

My first visit to Wisconsin was in 1978. My mother, brother and I drove to Appleton, from our home in Maryland, to pick up my sister who had spent the summer staying with my cousins and working in their store, Laurerman's Corner Grocery (the little store with more). Two years later I took my turn doing the same thing. I was 16 years old then and I remember that as it was the first time I flew unaccompanied. I was so nervous, and when I didn't see my cousins right away at the Milwaukee airport I panicked.

I don't get to Wisconsin as often as I would like, but often enough that in the 32 years since that first visit I have lost count of how many times I have been there. I have two sets of Wisconsin cousins, my mother's late brother Larry's six children; and her brother Dave's two son's. It was Larry's clan who owned the store. Dave was still a childless bachelor back then. I don't think he had even moved to Wisconsin yet. James, Paloma and I all love to visit the relations in Wisconsin. We have deemed them our "COWS" (Cousins of Wisconsin). My cousin Tami has a daughter the same age as Paloma and I am thrilled to see a second generation of cousinly love blooming. Tami and her sister Lori stood up for me and James at our wedding 23 years ago. Lori, along with her friend and fellow Wisconsinite, Sharon, met up with me in Spain in 1986 and we traveled on the trains to Belgium and France together. I think my cousins are golden.

When I remember my time in Wisconsin I recall hiding "True Confessions" magazine under the counter of the store so no one would know I was reading it off the racks. I can't even believe I used to read that crap. I also remember my cousins wanting me to experience everything about Wisconsin. We went canoeing, to a drive-in movie, and ate out all the time. We spent one evening at a church fair and I won about a dozen free coupons for root beer at the A&W drive-in, which I believe is still in business, even after giving away so much of its product!

We also went to a Brewers-Orioles game in Milwaukee, with me the lone Orioles fan in the stadium. I bet some kid that the Os would shut out the Brewers and won a dollar when Baltimore won (one to nothing!) Wisconsin is also where I learned the word "bubbler" meant water fountain, which would serve me well when I moved to New England - except here, of course, we pronounce it BUB-la. Other visits to Wisconsin have included trips Door County, (which members of the Extra Miler Club will tell you is one of the trickier counties to pick up) for winery tours and skinny dipping; and visiting my cousin Lori in Crivitz, Wisconsin the year she taught there. I will never forget spending the day with her class of learning disabled students, and the protests that ensued when she suggested they write haikus for the school's literary magazine. For many years I kept this one on my refrigerator, which was written by an elementary student named Russell:

Cows have big babies (5 syllables)
Cows eat grass and grain and wheat (7 syllables)
Cows eat flowers, too (5 syllables).

The poem was accompanied by a drawing of a very skinny cows with long legs and no ears. I sent it back to Lori many years ago. I don't know if she still has it or not.

Important Update - A Treasure Found! 

I discovered the famed haiku and drawing while cleaning out some drawers in my dining room in July 2012.
Last summer when we were visiting Appleton I noticed that Lori was reading Coop by Mike Perry. It was a book that was on my list of "Year of Books" as a possibility for last year's blog "My Year of Reading Year of Books". (The subtitle of Perry's book is "A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting"). I asked if I could borrow it, but she wasn't done with it, and she gave me another of Perry's books instead: Population 485, about returning to his hometown of  Auburn, Wisconsin and working as a volunteer firefighter and EMT. James and I both read it, and loved it, so I was glad to be able to get a copy of Coop from interlibrary loan to read for this project. Perry hasn't lost his touch. I read this 350 page book in two days, laughing out loud as much at the parenting foibles (that I could relate to) as to the farming fiascos (that I couldn't). I chuckled at Perry's description of taking his daughter with him to take two slaughtered pigs to butcher.

"I delight as usual in having Amy as my copilot. Bombing down a country road in a pickup truck with my daughter has become one of the signal joys of fatherhood. Throw a couple of dead pigs in the back and you've got yourself a Hallmark card on wheels."

This image is reminscent for me of the only time I was in Wisconsin for Thanksgiving. I think it must have been 1988. James and I were returning to Ohio after the long weekend and at one point found ourselves driving behind a pickup with two Christmas trees and two dead deer in the bed! Talk about a magical Wisconsin holiday image! This blog post really wouldn't be complete without some mention of deer hunting, for which kids in the northern part of the state get an entire week off of school. I thought this was strange until I moved to Massachusetts and discovered that every school in the state closes during the third week in April  in order to commemorate the midnight ride of Paul Revere.

Anyway, I suspect that Perry probably tries to put on a much harder persona to his fellow Wisconsinites than his heart-felt writing reveals. Now that I have read two of his books I will call him my favorite Wisconsin author. It looks like I have a few more of his books to look forward to, including Truck: A Love Story. Find out more about Mike Perry at

American Movie looked like a "mockumentary", but it wasn't. I called it a meta-documentary as it was produced by an independent filmmaker who was making a movie about an independent film maker, Mark Borchardt. The film follows Borchardt as he attempts to finish a short horror film, Coven. Borchardt does not even pronounce the name of his own film properly, saying it with a long O, even after one of his actors tries to correct him. His friend Mike Schank, who provides music for the film, seems to be some kind of idiot-savant. He is rather inarticulate, one can assume this is thanks to the drug overdose he talks about, and always has a blank smile on his face when talking to the camera. He barely blinks or moves his head, which is quite eerie. In contrast he appears to be a quite a good musician. I had a hard time believing that the music I was hearing came from him. If this had been fiction I would have thought his character was overdone.  But apparently, it was all real. Borchardt's Uncle Bill (aka his Executive Producer) was another study in extremes. The elder Borchardt lived a simple life in a trailer and yet had tens of thousands of dollars to loan to his nephew to produce the film. Upon Uncle Bill's death Mark is bequeathed an additional 50 thousand dollars in order to complete his movie. Classic Wisconsin.


I sent James out on a quest to get us some Wisconsin cheese to have with dinner. I was sure I saw some, clearly labeled as such, in the dairy section of our local grocery store. Perhaps I did, but James ended up going to the specialty cheese section and examining quite a few packages before he found two that came from Wisconin: one was an herb havarti, and the other a smoked cheddar swiss (the cheddar swiss combination is apparently what the official "cheesehead" hat is supposed to be, by the way.) In addition, we had one of our favorite dishes, potato pancakes. I didn't even realize that that was a Wisconsin favorite, too, until I saw it on this website:

I will close with a link to sweet Wisconsin library story. I love library stories. On November 18, 2009 librarians in Wisconsin documented their work through photography, which resulted in the Wisconsin Librarians say "Cheese" webpage.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

South Carolina - May 23, 1788

We were in Charleston, South Carolina on July 1, 2000. The day the Conferderate flag was taken down from the State House. I remember listening to the radio of a blow by blow as the flag was lowered and moved to a different location as part of a Civil War monument. It was a surreal day to be there. I couldn't even understand why the Conferderate Flag was still flying in the first place.

The South Carolina state flag has a crescent and a Palmetto tree. The Palmetto was added during the Civil War after South Carolina seceded. According to this site, the Palmetto played a significant role in the Revolutionary War.

Charleston is a beautiful city. I really liked seeing Rainbow Row and visting Folly Beach.

Dorothy Allison's Two or Three Things I know for Sure explores the author's abusive family history through photographs and memories. There is a kind of a stream-of-conciousness to it. It is not written in a linear fashion, but rather by topics. Interspersed throughout are maxims that begin with "Two or three things I know for sure..." but there are a lot more than two or three of these in the book, so I guess she really knows more than she claims. This is a slim volume that can be read in a few hours. It gives the reader a view of the more sketchy side of southern life, a world without estates or "coming out" parties. Fans of Dorothy Allison will only be disappointed by the fact that the book is so short it ends too soon.

The List appears to be nothing more than a poor facsimile of The Ultimate Gift. A young man feels dissed by his deceased father when he discovers that he was left only a key to a safe deposit box. The contents of the box lead him to a secret society formed during the Civil War, which invests the families' fortunes. Billed as a "thriller" the summary in the Internet Movie Database says "a list from the past leads to unimaginable evil". I wondered then about the PG rating, and, as it turns out the movie was pretty tame for something with claims of "unimaginable evil". I couldn't tell if one of the characters was supposed to have made some deal with the devil, but the conflict of "good vs. evil" was nevertheless pretty straightforward. I found the religious aspect of it too sappy, which was really disappointing. I picked this movie because the other movies I identified for South Carolina did look too sappy (The Notebook, and Dear John). I will refer blog readers back to Dorothy Allison for a non-sappy South Caroline movie - Bastard Out of Carolina.

In reading the South Carolina essay in State by State I saw reference several time to the Lowcountry, and heard it mentioned also in The List, but in neither case did I see what area it included. I found the  Lowcountry homepage, but even it doesn't make it obvious. I get the idea that if you don't know where it is, you don't belong there. Anyway, Wikipedia to the rescue. The Lowcountry is the coastal area of the State. We will be visiting the Lowcountry next month when we see our friends in Charleston and visit the Bigelow Tea Plantation as part of James' tea research.

We enjoyed some delicious Pecan Pie as our South Carolina treat. All three of us liked this recipe, (James and Paloma each had two pieces!). The pie turned out to be not super sweet, which I find is too often true with Pecan pies. This recipe is really for "tarts" but since I don't have tart trays I just used the same recipe to make a pie.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Minnesota - May 11, 1858

My first experience with Minnesota was probably watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s. I have good memories of my whole family lined up on the sofa to watch the show on Saturday night on our black and white television set, and eventually on our new color set. I really loved that show. Mary Richards was so cool, and she had that groovy apartment! Why she moved to that generic one-bedroom in a high rise is a mystery to me!

My first visit to Minnesota was in 1998. We spent my daughter's first birthday at the COMO zoo in St. Paul while we were visiting our friends David and Lesley who lived in the Twin Cities. We've been out one other time since then, but they have since moved to Australia. We have also visited Duluth where one of James' former colleagues lives and works at the University of Minnesota. I can say for sure that Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth are all great place to visit in the summer. I remember seeing lovely gardens in Duluth. I am not sure I would fare well during a Minnesota winter though.

I couldn't resist a Garrison Keillor book for my Minnesota reading. Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 tells the story of young Gary, a fourteen-year-old boy who lives with his Sanctified Brethren family in Lake Wobegon, and lusts after his older cousin Kate. He listens to the Doo Dads on the radio and hopes for them to make it big. While Gary reads his clandestine copy of High School Orgies (which includes an obligatory story about a horny librarian), and writes his own ribald tales on the typewriter his Uncle Sugar gifts him, he imagines the conversations his grandfather in heaven must be having about him with Jesus. His typewriter also allows him to work for the local paper writing about the Wobegon Wippets. And we wonders what possessed his classmate Roger Guppy to run off across state lines with his girlfriend in a stolen car. The descriptions of "the older sister", whom he never names, are purely the work of an unsympathetic teen. As a reader I just couldn't like her, all the while I knew that if we read the same story from her point of view that young Gary would come off as a mean-spirited pervert. Keillor's descriptions of the house, the town, and the school were vivid, and the story was just plain funny. It was a great airplane read - really passed the time.

American Dream is the story of the Austin, Minnesota Hormel Packing Plant strike in the late 1980s. The begininng reminded me a lot of Roger & Me (see my Michigan post), but then moved away from it. James pointed out that what was different is that a Michael Moore documentary would give much more of the big economic picture, whereas this one told the story of a group of workers through a very close lens, and told the story well, and in-depth. A long strike forces some workers to go back to their jobs at a lower salary, those who tough out the strike are angry at the strikebreakers and scabs, fist fights and family rifts are some of the consequences. Sadly, the movie has a Moore-esque ending, with the corporation winning and most of the stikers out of a job. Watching the families pack, and seeing the "going out of business" signs posted on store fronts one can only hope that Austin will fare better than Flint. A final note that the Hormel Plant had leased part of its building to another company that was paying much lower wages prompted to James to say that this movie is really a pre-quel to Fast Food Nation, demonstrating how the packing plants became the destination of new, undocumented immigrants, and I had to agree.

The Minnesota State Fair is known for its Food-on-a-Stick, so after I chose two recipes from the Minnesota State Recipes website (Indian Fry Bread and Blueberry Milkshakes) I decided that I should attempt to make the Fry bread on a stick. I found three wooden chopsticks in our utensil drawer and wrapped the dough around them before putting them in the hot vegetable oil (I chose not to fry them in fat as the recipe suggests). It was a bit cumbersome to do it that way, and then hard to eat on the stick, so we ended up removing from the stick and just tucking in to them. All three of us enjoyed them, and they were so flavorful there was no need for butter or other condiments, plus, they retained their steamy heat for a long time. We will remember these next winter as an easy-to-make warm treat. They made the house smell delicious, too. As my brother-in-law would say, "they put the "come" in comfort food".

Fruit shakes are a common breakfast item at our house, usually made with a combination of fresh and frozen fruit, juice, and yogurt. The Blueberry Milkshake was made with actual milk and ice cream. I don't buy ice cream much, but I remembered that Breyer's had some sort of purity pledge involving using only all-natural ingredients, so when I saw a low-fat version of their vanilla flavor I bought it. When I got home James asked me why I bought ice cream with Splenda. Did I? Yep. All-natural? I don't think so. We may not be purists ourselves about everything we eat, but one thing we really avoid is artifical sweetners. Blech. The Regan Administration pushed those through in the 1980s even though the FDA advised against them. In any case that was the ice cream we had, and I have to admit it tasted good. James and I liked the milkshakes. Paloma tried hers, but after a few tastes informed us that she doesn't "tend to like things that are blueberry flavored and frozen". Well, who knew?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Cinco de Mayo - May 5, 1862

Although not a state celebration, we always recognize Cinco de Mayo at our house. I am including a short blog post about it simply as an opportunity to point out that it is not Mexico's Independence Day (which falls on September 16) but rather the commemoration of the battle of Puebla in which the French Army was defeated. I am not sure how this regional Mexican holiday has made its way to be cause for celebration in the U.S., except that it gives people an excuse to drink Corona and Dos XX. We celebrated with a variation on the traditional Margarita, the Paloma,  which we learned about from the Boston Globe magazine on Sunday. Paloma is our daughter's name, so we really had no choice but to prepare the concoction of tequila and grapefruit soda.

We didn't watch any Mexican movies or read any books about Mexico, but for both I would recommend Like Water for Chocolate (Como aqua para chocolate).  The book is written by Laura Esquivel, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie. It is a beautiful, passionate love story with a lot of magic realism.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Louisiana Supplements

In recognition of Louisiana Day -- which I enjoyed celebrating with Pam -- I would like to provide a few additional items, mainly related to the often-tragic geography of the coastal lowland area -- a vulnerable national treasure.

I first started learning about the complicated environmental geography of the region from John McPhee's masterpiece The Control of Nature, one-third of which is devoted to the precarious workings of Old River Control. In the late 1980s, shortly after reading that chapter, major floods were occurring a thousand miles  upstream, and the news was focused on how St. Louis, Missouri was being affected. I thought of the far-lower Mississippi, and contacted the Army Corps of Engineers in Louisiana to see if they were worried. I reached a person responsible for Old River Control, who said, "Sorry, I'm running off to a meeting." Meaning that the structure was indeed threatened.

More recently, of course, a lot of attention focused on the severe damage to the region from Hurricane Katrina. Last year, I posted a NY Times map on my blog that illustrates how Katrina caused Louisiana to experience a major job recession ahead of the rest of the United States.

Louisiana has been hit before, of course, and the nation that takes Louisiana so much for granted has let it down before. Aaron Neville sings about it in Louisiana 1927.

The BP spill of April 20 will deal the region a different kind of setback, as it threatens both natural communities and the livelihoods of residents. The first oiled bird was recovered a week after the explosion, on Louisiana Day in Venice, Louisiana.

For updates on the disaster, see the EPA Response page and the multi-agency/corporation Joint Information Centre, which posts the latest maps.