Friday, June 25, 2010

Virginia - June 25, 1788

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Back when my family used to drive to our piece of land in West Virginia from our home in Catonsville, Maryland we would pass a sign that said "Welcome to Virginia" and see a small picnic area, then we'd see another sign that said "Welcome to West Virginia." "My, what a small state", I would think, "it hardly seems worth the bother." (The map above shows where we must have driven). What I didn't know, was that in the "Mother of Presidents", which is really 39,594 square miles, (bigger than Maryland and West Virginia combined) on a street called Owl's Nest road, in a town called Manassas, a little boy named James was playing with his brother, riding bikes, and catching frogs and that someday we would meet, fall in love, marry, and honeymoon in historic Williamsburg. We recently visited Williamsburg again, and our friends Bill & Karen who live there. Bill took us to the Botanical Gardens in Norfolk,Virginia where we got to take both the boat and tram tours, and see some juvenile bald eagles. We also saw our first camelia sinensis plant (where tea comes from). We would see many more a few days later in South Carolina when we visited the Charleston tea plantation. See James' update to South Carolina for more about that.

Virginia is also the only place I have ever caught a fish. I actually caught two there, in Lake Montresor, when I was at summer camp in Leesburg during the summers of 1976 & 1977 I used a stick, some nylon thread, and a paper clip for my rod, and a beetle for bait to lure the sunfish. I threw one of the fish back, the other I gave to the camp cats to eat. The camp is now defunct, but recently I discovered this nostalgia page for it. Below are some photographs and certificates from my time there.

James' grandmother still lives in Fairfax, Virginia, and we go out there once or twice a year to see her. We can always count on her having a bowlful of peanut M&Ms on her kitchen counter. There is a lot more to say about "Grandma's house", but I will let James tell that story.

Portraits of America: Virginia by John Bowen is a coffee table book with stunning photographs, and rather bland text. I suppose I wasn't expecting anything different. Coffee table books are really meant to be browsed. I pulled this off of our own book shelf, where it has been for probably two decades. There are seven broad geographic sections of the book, each with subdivisions touting the regions' treasures, history, and culture. It is sorely lacking in maps, though. I counted exactly zero of them. Geographer James found these useful links for those, like me, who need a map:
General regions:
Descriptions of phsyiographic provinces:
Detail of Tidewater region:

 The narratives in this work show a clear love for the state and gloss over less appealing aspects of the state's history. Slavery is mentioned a few times, but is not explored. I also noted that where this book mentions that William Henry Harrison (ninth president of the United States) was born at Berkely Plantation "despite [his] association with the frontier", I learned more about this from Tony Horowitz's essay in State by State. His passage makes it clear that Harrison "became...president after campaigning as a humble 'log cabin' candidate." The book celebrates many Virginia heroes including the nine presidents born there, and Civil War Generals Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and Robert E. Lee. My Maryland schooling has made it very difficult for me to understand the southern predilection for celebrating a war it lost. There is more about this on my Maryland post. Virtually all of the heroes mentioned in this book are white males. Since it was published 25 years ago, I guess this shouldn't surprise me either. I was interested to see that both Bowen and Horowitz mentioned Edgar Allan Poe as a favorite Virginia son, although he was neither born nor died there. It is funny to me how many places claim him: both Massachusetts (where he was born) and Maryland (where he died) do, too. I noticed this even as I noted that Virginia seemed afraid to claim General Douglas MacArthur who was raised in Virginia from infancy, lived there most of his life and died there, but because his mother was traveling when she delivered young Doug prematurely, he was actually an Arkansan.

Bonus book:
The Virginia Night Before Christmas by E.J. Sullivan (another one that was on my own bookshelf) is a fun spoof on the Clement C. Moore's classic poem "A Visit from St. Nick" incorporating Virgina landmarks and historical figures. For instance the reindeer are named for presidents born in Virginia. This does seem like it a bit redneck-y, but when I read that Sullivan also wrote a book called The Redneck Night Before Christmas  I figured he probably had some practice.

Bedford: The Town they Left Behind tells the story of the 116th unit of the National Guard in Bedford, Virginia during World War II. The reservists earned one dollar each time they completed their drills - a lot of money in those days. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 their unit was called up and sent to England, where they received additional training. The first fighting they saw was on the beach at Normandy on June 6, 1944 - D- day. Within the first 15 minutes half of the 39 men in the unit were killed. This documentary is based on interviews with soldiers who were there, widows, and other family members. Photographs, archival footage, and letters help to complete the story. The 116th is still active today, and the film includes interviews with soldiers recently returned from Iraq.   Listening to family members talk about husbands, brothers and sons who never came back, after they spoke about how hopeful they had been, created a moving tribute, however tough to watch. Bedford, Virginia is home to the D-Day Memorial. I had not heard of it before watching this film.

Surry County Peanut Raisin pie was something I learned about in the Virginia book. I modified it a bit from the linked recipe, and used almond extract in the crust rather than going on a quest to find Frangelico liquer, and I also noticed that although the instructions mention flour (a necessary ingredient for crust) it is not actually listed with the other ingredients. So based on other recipes I found, I used 2.5 cups, which turned out to be enough for a top and bottom crust. I also substituted honey for sugar, as I am trying to use more of my own local ingredients in my cooking. This pie has a lot of texture, and is quite sweet. James and I shared it with our friend Anna. We all liked it, and agreed that one piece is all a person can eat at a time. It is quite heavy. I froze the rest of it to eat at a later time. James and I also had a bottle of Blue Crab Blanc wine with our dinner from the Ingleside Plantation Vineyards which we picked up on our recent trip to Virginia, along with several other Virginia wines that we plant to enjoy later. The Blue Crab was a bit sweeter than we usually like. We prefer dry white wines.

South Carolina follow-up

A couple of weeks after South Carolina day, we enjoyed a visit the Palmetto State. I have written about it on my South Carolina County Map page, though ironically I have not yet updated the county map.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Where is Our Town?

Blogger "Coolspark" shared my curiosity about the geographic challenge in the opening line of Our Town, the play that Pam chose as our New Hampshire film. Like me, he wondered where exactly it might be, and included the answer in the opening paragraphs of his review of the ART production of the play.

Knowing that my own coordinates are in the same ballpark, it seemed plausible that Wilder placed the fictional town somewhere in New Hampshire. In reality, he did something a bit more clever: he placed it just about as close to New Hampshire as he could, without being on land. It may never be known whether he realized that in doing so, he placed it at the very tiny "Dodge Rock" in Rockport, Massachusetts.

The play gives the coordinates of Our Town as 42.40°N 70.37°W. Dodge Rock is the nearest feature, with an elevation of 0 meters (watch that boat hull!) and coordinates, according to the USGS, of 42.6668°N 70.6162°W. Because it is submerged, the rock does not actually show up on the satellite image below or on most maps.

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New Hampshire - June 21, 1788

On June 21, 1788 the United States Constitution went into effect as New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify.

My most recent trip to New Hampshire was last month, when I traveled to New London, New Hampshire to visit the Library at Colby-Sawyer College as part of my sabbatical project. The town is charming, as is the New London Inn where James and I stayed in a jacuzzi suite that was decorated in blue and gold. We peeked in a few of the other rooms, each of which appeared to have its own decorating scheme. The Susan Colgate Clevland Library and Learning Center has its own rustic appeal as it is housed in an old barn - one enters through the silo.

Rear-View Mirrors by Paul Fleischman is the story of Olivia who meets her father for the first time when she is 17 years old. She travels from Berkeley, California to North Hooton, New Hampshire to spend a month with him at his invitation. The following year she returns to North Hooton, after her father's death, to honor his memory with a 70-mile bicycle ride that he had completed the year before. The story oscillates between Olivia's memories of the summer before, in which she and her father performed a sort of dance of one-upsmanship, and the bike ride during which Olivia reflects on her father and discovers some things about herself. This book has a lot of descriptions of New Hampshire flora and fauna, and a bit about the Red Sox, too.

I've heard Thornton Wilder's Our Town (the fictional Grover's Corners, New Hampshire)  is one of the most-produced plays probably because the sets are sparse, and therefore it can be low-budget. The 1940 movie version, however, used more true to life sets, and I don't think it ended the way the play does. I know I've seen the play, but I don't remember when, and I also read it in high school. Am I misremembering that in the play that after Emily dies and gets her wish to go back for one day, she then goes back to being dead? Anyway, another reason this gets produced a lot is that even 100 years later certain things still ring true. James and I laughed when Emily started badgering her mother about whether or not she thought Emily was pretty, and her mother finally told her to shut up about it when Emily wouldn't let it go. We started the scene over again and then called our own badgering daughter down from her room to see it. We had to do the same thing when we watched the scene in which Dr. Gibb admonishes his son George for not doing his chores and leaving his mother to do them herself, on top of everything else she had to do because she got tired of asking him to do them. A timeless story indeed.

We celebrated New Hampshire along with West Virginia and Arkansas at dinner this evening. Read about our tri-state dinner here.

Tri-State meal

We were on vacation the past two weeks - a trip down the east coast to Charleston, South Carolina which I will blog about later this week - and did not get a chance to have our Arkansas or West Virginia meals. Since today is New Hampshire Day, we supped on delicacies from all three states this evening.

Turkeys and rice are staples of Arkansas agriculture. (I had no idea that rice was grown in the United States.) For our main course this evening I made turkey burgers with a side of rice. These were not just any plain old turkey burgers, either. I found a recipe from the "Eat Turkey" website for Apple Turkey Burgers that turned ground turkey into a truly gourmet experience. Grated Granny Smith Apple added to the turkey before cooking, and a cranberry sauce topping gave these a combination of tart and sweet that may have me never going back. See the rest of the Arkansas post here.

Blackberry Cobbler made in our indespensible cast-iron skillet was a delicious West Virginia dessert. I cut the sugar by about 1/3 of the amount called for in the recipe. The fruit made this plenty sweet. See the rest of the West Virginia post here.

In December James, Paloma and I visited Bridgewater, New Hampshire  where we bought some wine from the Candia Vineyards. We saved a bottle of Diamond white wine for just this occasion. This is a crisp, tart, satisfying wine that went down very well with the turkey burgers. See the rest of the New Hampshire post here.

West Virginia - June 20, 1863

Astute readers will notice that the date stamp on this is a day late. We returned from a two-week vacation last night and I simply did not have the energy to post anything after being in the car all day on our return trip.

Almost heaven...

When I was very young my family bought a piece of property in the Shenandoah Valley of West Virginia. A few times a year we would drive out there, up the mountain with the guard rail that I never quite trusted. I got a thrill picturing our light blue Peugot rolling down the side of the hill. When we got to our piece of land we would have a picnic and talk about building a cabin there, or buying an camper. Then we would swim in the nearby lake, and then drive back to Baltimore. After a while it just seemed we stopped going, and stopped dreaming, and the property seemed to be forgotten. I know my father gave the deed to my sister and her husband at one point, then asked for it back. A few years ago when I really started dreaming about becoming a hermit I asked my father about it, and he told me he "got rid of that albatross a long time ago." Ah, well.

The Hayes children enjoying a piece of heaven c1969. Blogger is on the left.

Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!
When West Virginian Rosalee Futch wins a contest to fly to California and have a night on the town with her favorite movie actor, she never imgines how it will change her life. Although a "tad" predictable, this is a sweet romantic comedy with a twist on the old worldy-boy-sweeps-naive-girl-off-her-feet schtick. And it has a few good one-liners. I was interested to see that the focus of the story was not on the contest, or even the date, both of which are done within the first 20 minutes or so of the film, without much fanfare. We tried to get our almost 13-year old daughter to watch it with us, as she seemed to be the target demographic for this one, but since we picked it out, she figured it wasn't worth her time. Not a movie I would have picked out for myself normally, but it was the perfect thing for relaxing after a 10-hour car trip. There wasn't a lot to place this is West Virginia. It really could have been filmed in any relatively rural southern area with a Piggly Wiggly. According to some of this was filmed on location, but I imagine the bulk of it was filmed in Hollywood.

The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake was loaned to me by my friend Brendan, who always seems to know what I will like (except when he taped The Great Race and suggested that I watch it). Anyway, this collection of 12 short stories gave a bit more insight into rural West Virginia culture that the Tad Hamilton movie did.  I read about people who got their meat by hunting squirrel and deer, who kill beagles because they have nothing better to do, who hire teenage prostitutes, and who may dream of a better life than coal mining, but never find it. As I started to read I guessed that none of the stories would have a female protagonist, and was surprised to see that I was wrong on that count. The sixth story, "The Mark", tells of Reva, who is waiting to hear back the result of her rabbit test, a common pregnancy test back in the 1970s when this was first published. Breece Pancake (yes, the author's real name) killed himself in 1979 at the age of 27. I felt the same after reading this collection as I did after reading the novel A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, another gifted writer who commited suicide at a young age. I can only wonder in both cases what great stories will never be written.

We had a meal tonight comemmorating West Virginia, Arkansas and New Hampshire. Read about it here.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Arkansas - June 15, 1836

The only time I was in Arkansas was in the summer of 1997 when I drove through it on the way from Texas to Massachusetts. I don't think we even stopped there for any length of time. I do know that we drove through Hope, Arkansas, hometown of then-president Bill Clinton. My Godmother moved to Arkansas from Indiana a few years ago, but I have not been to visit her there.

I am going to go out on a limb and declare Inbred, Redneck Alien Abduction to be the worst movie reviewed for this blog, even though I am less than halfway through the year's celebrations. I didn't really expect it to be an especially sophisticated film, but I guess I did expect some kind of entertaining romp. Instead it is simply a very bad, low-budget movie that perpetuates backwards stereotypes  of sex-crazed hillbillies. James told my father that the best thing about this movie was that although the envelope said that the movie was 2 hours long, it was really only 90 minutes. We were very glad to see the credits roll.

The Power of One: Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine by Dennis and Judith Fradin is a well-researched book about the integration of Central High in Little Rock in 1957. Nine black students under the mentorship of NAACP President Daisy Bates entered the school in late September, escorted by federal troops after previously being denied entrance by the Arkansas National Guard, under the direction of Governor Faubus. Once they enrolled in the school and started classes the students were constantly harassed and victimized, often while members of the National Guard looked on. Primary documents including photographs, newspaper clippings, and letters enhance this work which was intended for middle school students.

We are deferring our Arkansas dining experience until we return from our vacation next week. Look for a supplemental post.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Tennessee addendum

I forgot to mention a couple of wonderful things about the Scarritt Bennett Center:  the wonderful Gallery F - an art gallery with a coffee shop and gift shop attached, and a meditation labyrinth right outside. I woke up early and walked the labyrinth in the emerging light with the winter grass crunching under my feet. It was very peaceful. And thanks to Ted Fischer at Vanderbilt University for reminding me that the Mediterranean Cafe was the Greek restaurant I ate at.

Kentucky Movie - Harlan County U.S.A.

I suppose it is a universal wish of parents that their children have a better life than they did. The coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1973 had this desire as well. What struck me about the miners, though, was that they were under no false impressions that their children would have any other options beyond coal mining. The subjects in this documentary never mentioned hoping that their children might someday go to college and get out of the difficult and dangerous work. They struck in order to improve the working conditions of coal mine that their grandfathers, and fathers worked in and where their sons and grandsons would someday get jobs. The simple truth was that men in Harlan County worked in the mine, and women married coal miners. This movie not only documented the lives of the striking miners, and the dangers associated with thier jobs (black-lung disease, and working with explosives, among others), it also told the story of their wives, and how the women came together to support the strike, and indeed, thier active role in it.

The 13-month long strike ended when one of the "gun thugs" (those hired by the coal miner to let the scabs through) shot and killed a young striker leaving his 16-year old widow and, five-month old daughter to mourn him.

This was a tough movie to watch. Not so much for the violence, which was actually pretty minimal, but just knowing that this took place in the 20th century, and being reminded of the serious dangers that coal miners still face today, especially in light of the recent tragedy in West Virginia in which 25 miners died at a mine owned by  Massey Energy.  Massey Energy had been cited frequently for safety violations in recent years.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

RIP Saturn: Our Tennessee Connection

Roger & Me, issued in 1989, remains one of the most important films in the formation of my world view, and though it takes place several hundred miles north of Tennessee, it was pivotal in creating an abiding connection between our family and the Volunteer State.

It was Michael Moore's first film, best known for his pursuit of General Motors CEO Roger Smith and some unfortunate business with rabbits. More importantly, it is about the demise of Flint, Michigan and General Motors culpability in that demise. More generally, the film explains how the social contract of the early twentieth century United States -- in which worker loyalty was exchanged for a reasonably comfortable lifestyle -- had been undermined by greed. The film included a brief interview with auto worker Ben Hamper, who in 1991 published Rivethead, a dismal portrayal of the ever-increasing cycles of greed and apathy, as management and labor worked against each other, the customers, and eventually against themselves (though management seems somehow to have emerged from this destructive cycle with its wealth intact).

These great works served as background in 1994, as the pile of degrees in our closet had grown, we had no child yet, and we could see the light at the end of the graduate-school tunnel. Like any good North Americans, this could only mean one thing: time to buy our first new car. But I was still in graduate school, so we were strongly interested in economy -- both in purchase price and in operating costs. And because of what we knew from Messrs. Moore and Hamper, we were in the market for a reasonably just car, if such a thing even exists. That car, it turns out, was a Saturn, and if you are wondering what this story has to do with Tennessee, Roger Smith -- yes, that Roger, along with UAW president Owen Bieber -- had driven the first Saturn off the assembly line in 1990 in Tennessee.

Spring Hill, Tennessee, to be exact, which became an icon for the entire Saturn experience. When General Motors executives -- together with leaders of the United Automobile Workers union -- decided to start fresh, they knew they had to be far from Detroit. They identified workers, engineers, and managers who were interested in creating a new, more cooperative approach. The changes were many, but among the most important was a focus on customers -- not only the ultimate customer buying the car, but also each "customer" within the company, as the interdependency of workers on each other was recognized. Simplicity and transparency were also key elements of the Saturn approach.

The result was "a different kind of car company" that generated tremendous customer loyalty, as documented in this short video of the first of several customer reunions at the factory in Spring Hill.

The story is told in considerable detail in Joe Sherman's very enjoyable In the Rings of Saturn, published in 1993. General Motors established Saturn in 1985, when it realized that its business practices needed very deep changes, in the direction of what is often thought of as "Japanese-style management." Treating fellow workers as customers, for example, meant that the plant was laid out so that engineers for a particular part of the car could work directly with the assemblers who had the most direct experience with that part. 

In a documentary about the company, one of the assembly workers who made the move to Saturn said that he really enjoyed the opportunity to be more fully engaged and invested in this way. He said of his prior experience on assembly lines that GM had hired him only "from the neck down." This was really the beginning of my realization that there is no such thing as unskilled labor. Any work -- no matter how menial it might seem from the outside -- can be done in a more or less thoughtful way. And if it is more thoughtful, the worker, the enterprise, and the customer benefit. It was as if a car company had been modeled on the lessons about quality and caring that Pirsig teaches in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

As a geographer, I found the site-selection process -- by which GM arrived at the Spring Hill location -- particularly exciting. It is not often that the work of professional geographers is undertaken in such cloak-and-dagger style. It had become fairly common knowledge that GM was looking for a green-field site somewhere. Any hint that a site was being considered would draw speculators, so extensive research was done -- pre-internet -- in absolute secrecy. About ten general areas were identified on the basis of very broad considerations such as distance from the population center of the country and major highways. Then detailed maps were consulted within those areas for more specific criteria, such as work force availability and topography. Researchers visiting particular sites took multi-leg plane trips and made decoy hotel reservations, not even telling their families where they were actually going. 

In the end, Spring Hill, Tennessee was chosen, and it became synonymous with the Saturn brand. To a surprising extent, the project worked. Young professionals who had given up on U.S.-made automobiles flocked to Saturn and to the dealerships, where the focus on simplicity, transparency, and fairness was extended. Some of the lessons were then applied elsewhere in GM, even as the company continued to export jobs. Gradually, the purity of the experiment was eroded. Saturn continued to have exceptional dealerships, excellent design, and high quality, but labor relations were at times strained, some production was moved oversees, and more components were shared with other GM brands.

Still, we remained loyal customers, as we were convinced that Saturn was still our best bet on the quality-justice-economy trade-off matrix. (Credit goes to the Magliozzi brothers for the phraseology I'm borrowing here.) When our 1993 sedan gave up the ghost after twelve years and 227,000 miles of criss-crossing the country, the only question was when to buy a Saturn, not whether to do so. We purchased a 2004 wagon -- the last for sale in New England, as Saturn made the mistake of abandoning wagons in favor of gas-guzzlers, er, SUVs. Still, we were delighted to have the wagon for our family of three -- it was much bigger than the sedan, but still looked puny in the pick-up line at our daughter's school, where little kids were typically ferried about in behemoth vehicles that look like they should be carrying the president.

Anyway, we were still loving our Saturn -- which turned 100,000 miles last week -- even though the division never turned a profit. When the banking crisis hit U.S. car manufacturers, the sell-off of assets became inevitable. We crossed our fingers as we heard that Robert Penske might buy the brand, but that deal fell through, too late for any alternative to be found.

Where does this leave Spring Hill? It is not yet known the extent to which it might follow in the footsteps of Flint. When Saturn production -- which had already been reduced -- was shut down there in 2009, CNN referred to the town as "GM-dependent," which we know from Michael Moore is about a half-century removed from being a good thing. As recently as this week, GM offered some possibility -- though no promises -- of a re-opening of the plant in the foreseeable future. Let's hope that this is not the beginning of a period of yo-yo fortunes that have plagued other places that hitched their wagons to GM's star.

For now, we enjoy regular visits to our local dealership-formerly-known-as-Saturn, where we can find the same wonderful people who have taken care of our cars for the past dozen years. And what will we buy when we are ready to retire this car? We are not ready to think about that -- we are still in mourning.

NOTE: I put the quotes around "Japanese-style management" above because even though these practices are common in Japan, many of them originated with W. Edwards Deming, a U.S. scholar. Deming received an award from the Japanese emperor in 1960, a generation before U.S. industry was ready to take him seriously. Eventually, Deming's work was recognized more broadly. By the time I took a job in manufacturing in the mid-1990s, the focus on quality and listening to employees was making its way into our training -- using a lot of Japanese vocabulary words. I completed a small part of such a training course through APICS, as did many of my colleagues in manufacturing along the border.

Rhode Island follow-up

As a follow-up to Pam's main article of May 29, I suggest an article about Rhode Island that I just posted on my Environmental Geography blog. It begins with a spring-break walk along the cliffs in Newport, but includes a bit of political economy and ends with geology, and the incredible age range of New England landscapes.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Kentucky - June 1, 1792

I actually think about Ohio when I think of Kentucky. When we lived in Oxford, Ohio we were in the "tristate" area that included southwestern Ohio, southeastern Indiana, and Northern Kentucky. I think my  first trip to Kentucky was probably to the Cincinnati airport, which is really located in Covington, Kentucky. I missed my plane, but air travel rules were a lot more lax in 1987 and I was able to fly out on another airline within 30 minutes of the missed flight without any additional hassles or fees. The first time I spent any time in Kentucky was later that fall when James and I tagged along on an overnight camping/field trip to Mammoth Cave with one of the Geology classes from Miami University. What I remember most is that I had to pee really bad, but the professor saw no reason to stop for a bathroom break, although I was not the only one who needed relief. That evening when we were telling ghost stories around the fire one of the other students spotted the professor coming and said something like "so the scariest thing was that we had this professor who wouldn't let us go to the bathroom." James ended up taking the class the next year, and I was invited to come along on the field trip again, but I declined. Not only did I think I might need to use a restroom at some point during the weekend, I knew by then that we would be camping in a "dry county", and who needs that. I remember sending out some of the other students on a beer run and it took them over an hour to return.

When I select which books to read for this project there are several things I'm looking for. I try to find something that will help me to understand the culture of the state; I am looking for something with interest to me, but may also expand my horizons beyond what my usual tastes are; and in the case of Kentucky I was looking for a short book. Having the anniversaries for Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Kentucky and Tennessee come so close together it was essential that I pick something that I would have time to read. Besty Byars Keeper of the Doves is a short novel divided into twenty-six really short chapters, each representing a letter of the alphabet - starting with "A for Amen" and ending with "Z is not the end". The length of the book was not the only thing that drew me to it though. Since my daughter's name, Paloma, means "dove" in Spanish, the title caught my attention. Byar's book is the story of Amen (Amie) McBee and her sisters who live in Kentucky during the turn of the 20th century. Their family looks after Mr. Tominski, the keeper of the doves, who  once saved Mr. McBee's life. When the family pet is killed, Amie's twin sisters insist that Mr. Tominski is to blame and Amie questions her loyalties. This book is intended for children ages 8-12 and I read it in about an hour. The brevity of the book did not allow for all of the characters to be developed fully, some seemed very two-dimensional, nevertheless, the story did bring out some emotion of sadness and joy.

Well, we just had no choice but to have mint juleps as an after dinner drink today (our main course was a Kentucky fish recipe). I made mint syrup with 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 cup water, and mint leaves from my garden. I strained the syrup into two mason jar glasses each containing 4 oz. of Jim Beam bourbon, a splash or water and a mint leaf garnish. Boy, were they good. We tried a bit of the bourbon by itself and it has quite a kick, but mix it with a super-sweet mint syrup and one could easily down a few of these.

I did not properly account for the 3-day weekend when I put Harlan County, USA on my Netflix list. It is supposed to arrive tomorrow. I will write a supplemental post after I have had a chance to watch it.

Tennessee - June 1, 1796

Most of  trips to Tennessee have been brief - driving through it on the way to somewhere else. We spent a night in Memphis when we were moving from Texas to Massachusetts, and I remember it as the place that I have encountered the scariest driving ever. I did get to spend a few days in Nashville in 2008 at a Library workshop - Immersion Assessement Track - at the Scarritt Bennett Center. Unfortuately I did not get a chance to visit the Grand Ole Opry or attend any concerts. I do enjoy country music, so it is on my to do list for the next time I visit Nashville. I did enjoy walking around the Vanderbilt University (where James is an affiliated scholar at the Institute for Coffee Studies!) neighborhood and eating at a lovely family-owned Greek restaurant next to the Center. I wish I could remember what it was called. I also remember reading a great women's newspaper called Her Nashville, which made me wish that I lived there.

In 1980 Woodlawn Sr. High School produced the play Inherit the Wind, based on the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. It featured my sister in a bit part in which she had the unforgettable line "Don't have no opinions. It's bad for business". It was fun to hear that line in the classic film version starring Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly (in a non-dancing role), Fredric March, Harry Morgan, and Dick York (yeah, the one from Bewitched). I thought it was odd, though, that the names of the major players were all changed into something ficticious. It is not as if I couldn't figure out who they were supposed to be. It was easy to see why it was called the "Monkey Trial" though. Aside from the obvious allusion to Darwin's theory of evolution, the courtroom was really a zoo. Both the prosecuting and defense attorneys had to be addressed as Colonel, although neither held that military title. And the prosecuting attorney gleefully took the stand as a witness for the defense. I remember that after I saw my high school production of the play my father remarked that the reason the defense lost the case was that Clarence Darrow was defending the theory of evolution, rather than his client, who had, as a matter of fact, broken a law that prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution in Tennessee schools. It is quite interesting that now, 85 years later, the same battles are still being fought. See this article from the New York Times about Kansas fighting Darwinism. There is a documentary about this trial (Kansas vs. Darwin) that I look forward to seeing.

One more thing I cannot resist adding: the players and stage crew of the aforementioned Woodlawn Sr. High production called the play Inherit the Lesbian Zombies amongst themselves. I never did find out why.
Peter Taylor's novel In the Tennessee County tells the story of Nathan Longfort whose first memory is of riding a funeral train carrying the body of his grandfather, a senator, from Washington, D.C. back to his home state of Tennessee. In addition to Nathan, his parents, aunts, and uncles and other extended family, on the train is a mysterious cousin named Aubrey Tucker Bradshaw, who also worked as an aide to the senator. Aubrey's dubious parentage and strange relationship with Nathan's mother and aunts seem to be the cause of his disappearance following the funeral. Nathan never stops wondering what happened to his long lost cousin, and in the meantime seems to just have life happen to, around, and for him. He doesn't seem to live his own life. He marries, has a family, and becomes a college professor, but one gets the idea that he does these things because that's what one is expected to do. Although he has some passion for painting, he teaches art history because that is where he can make his mark as a scholar. As a reader, and defender of academic freedom, I lost most of the sympathy I had for his character when he manipulates a faculty vote to disallow the invitation of a liberal speaker to campus. Because the story spanned many decades, it was somethimes hard to tell when things were supposed be taking place, but I can assume from the use of the word "Communists" in this section of the book that it was the 1950s. Longfort seems to have no compunction about his role in this. He does eventually learn about his cousin, but the resolution at the end of the book was only mildly satisfying.

For dinner this evening we had a favorite fish recipe, which we discovered is also a Tennessee favorite. Fish fillets dipped in egg, milk and tabasco and dragged in a mix of cornmeal, and flour before frying. James also added a bit of Old Bay this time. This recipe calls for catfish, but we used talapia, because we already had some in the freezer. I really like talapia. It doesn't taste fishy, and has no bones.