Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Old vs New West - Again

Oh, yay - another national article about the collision between the new west and the old west. This time it was the Wall Street Journal jumping in with an article on how recent transplants from the West Coast are giving Obama a shot at being the third Democratic presidental candidates that Montana has ever voted for. That is all well and good, except that the journalist can't resist the cheap shots of espresso bars vs. cowboy hats (see below).

There are definitely people who have moved to Bozeman for the scenery and the chance to get outdoors regularly, who don't care about the local culture and are all for making changes to civilize Bozeman. There are also people, especially farming families, who have lived here for decades and feel displaced by the changes that are occurring. But there is a vast middle ground of people who don't fit these well-hammered stereotypes: recent transplants who value the local culture and work hard to fit in; people who have lived here for decades who appreciate the improved medical services, increased job opportunities for their children, and interesting cultural events; people who come here because they can have a microfarm, raise vegetables and eggs for the farmers' market, raise children in a safe community. The blending of all these people makes for a tolerant community that can accommodate most tastes and pocketbooks, from the $6.50 beef roast at the Western Cafe to the $9.95 panini at a nearby coffee shop or the $12 hamburger at Ted's Montana Grill; some locals patronize all of the above.

Many of the "new west" characteristics can't even be blamed on the newcomers: the local symphony has been playing for over 40 years, the opera for over 30. The farmers' market started in 1977. There has been an increase in coffee shops over the last decade, but that is a national trend, not one imported by West Coasters, and we probably don't have that many for a college town. On the other hand, new and old residents have worked together to keep downtown alive, build a wonderful new library, support a regional museum and 4-H, keep the county fairgrounds alive and healthy, and encourage a flourishing equestrian community. For most residents here, there is a blend that works sometimes and not others, rather than a clash of values. But a clash makes better press, I guess.

I was born in Bozeman, my father is a rancher, I shoot guns and go to the symphony, and I drive an Audi. What does that make me? I think it makes me a Montanan.

The editor in me can't resist picking on this paragraph: "At times, downtown Bozeman feels like it's inhabited by two different tribes. Main Street is lined with Audis and Subarus topped with mountain bikes and kayaks. Half an hour out of town, the polish on cowboy boots gives way to scuffs, and gun racks outnumber roof racks." How can a small downtown contain someplace half an hour out of town? That's a logical impossibility, as well as all the way to Three Forks, clear across the valley.

Raspberries Ripen

Although half our raspberry bushes took a beating when the well was being re-drilled last fall, the other half is doing fine and the first berries are ripening. I'm the only one who has figured this out yet, so I get the first harvest! Next year we will have more raspberries, since the trampled bushes from last year are putting out lots of canes this year (the second-year canes are the ones that bear fruit).

I saw the raspberries as I was hanging clothes out on the line this afternoon (which was only partially successful, since I left them on so long that the lawn sprinklers got them wetter than the washing machine did). That was also when I realized that the caragana pods are snapping in the hot sun; when the seed pods get dry enough, they twist and break apart at the seams, flinging seeds across the lawn. I love listening to the random snaps on a hot afternoon; I know high summer is here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sugar Does What?

Downtown this evening, I overheard a mom tell her daughter that she couldn't eat something because it had too much sugar... it might give her a cardiac arrest. What?!? That is a new one on me; I sincerely hope the mom was teasing her daughter (which could be, since I didn't hear the rest of the conversation). I'm all for minimizing the amount of sugar kids eat, but not with unfounded scare tactics.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Aristocrats vs. Populists

After years of seeing the book referred to, I am finally reading Democracy in America and finding it a fascinating (if challenging) read. Last night I read about Toqueville's analysis of the two strains of thought inherent in a democracy, one of which tends to increase the power of the people and the other to restrain it (Vol 1, Chapter X). The aristocratic faction tries to put boundaries on the extent to which the common people can affect government and to retain the power for elected legislators, while the populist factions tries to retain as much power for the common people as possible (as in referendums). The next thing I read was a description in The Fifties, by David Halberstam, about the division that beset the Republican Party after Roosevelt's reign as president left the Democratic Party firmly in power; the split was primarily between the aristocratic East Coast Establishment and the populist heartland. The modern Democratic party shows similar divisions, between the college-educated liberals who voted for Obama and the blue-color folks who voted for Clinton in the primaries. Toqueville's description of these trends, written over two centuries ago, still applies to American politics, and is still a useful tool in analyzing it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Summer Heat

The summer heat has finally arrived, a couple weeks late: today was the first day the high temperature was above 90 degrees here. In a perverse way, I enjoy the heat for the contrast it provides with January - as long as it doesn't go on too long and the nights aren't too warm. But the heat can cause problems similer to winter's cold: "Even in far more temperate settings than the Middle East or Southeast Asia, an hour's exposure to temperatures over 90 degrees tends to impair physical performance, while two hours' worth interferes with difficult mental tasks. Not everyone responds to heat in this way, nor do all types of effort diminish equally, but generally, the more the temperature rises over 90 degrees, the faster these declines set in." (Winifred Gallagher, The Power of Place) So that's why I get sluggish when it gets hot - human bodies just aren't supposed to function in extreme temperatures.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pickled Scapes Results

I pulled out the pickled garlic scapes tonight, to serve with a grilled beef roast, and they were a hit! The scapes were a nice combination of pickle and garlic, not too strong, and worked well with the beef. The entire jar disappeared by the end of dinner. Next, I think I'll chop some and add them to a steak salad with the rest of tonight's beef.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Sleep Deprivation

My two teenage boys are working summer jobs that require them to be at work by 8 a.m.; they make it on time, but their sleep cycles aren’t adjusting, no matter when they go to bed at night. So they come home at least once a week and crash on their beds for several hours, in addition to sleeping late on the weekends. This still isn’t enough sleep for them; I can tell because they are grumpier than usual, more often than usual.

Watching them, I wonder if most of “normal adolescent behavior” is actually caused by sleep deprivation. Teenagers are prone to shifted sleep cycles, so they literally can’t fall asleep at night between about 9 pm and midnight, which makes getting to school by 8:30 (or 7:30 if you have an early-morning class) difficult. Then they have school all day, sports and other after-school activities that often go until 9 or 10 at night, and then they have homework to do. When do they sleep? I don’t see how they can get even a normal eight hours of sleep a night, much less the nine or ten hours teens usually require.

I vividly recall sleep deprivation from when my kids were babies, and I know it is insidious and all-pervasive in its affects. Physical symptoms that threaten future health include a compromised immune system, heart disease, hypertension, and tremors; more immediate physical issues include slower reaction times, slurred speech, a tendency to eat too much or the wrong foods, and increased effectiveness of caffeine and alcohol. Emotional symptoms include grumpiness; poor judgment; aggressive or inappropriate behavior; an impaired ability to think, moderate emotions, and handle stress; lower concentration levels; poor memory; rigid thought patterns; and depression - all common teen characteristics. How much of that behavior would go away if the kids simply got a good night’s sleep on a regular basis?

I doubt we’ll find out any time soon, because that would require two major mental shifts in our culture. First we would have to set up school to accommodate teen sleep cycles rather than adult convenience; even shifting high-school hours an hour and a half later, 10:00 to 5:00, would help. Teachers could use the productive (for adults) morning time to prepare for classes instead of doing it late in the day when they are tired, and students would be more alert if they weren’t so tired.This change would force logistical changes in bus and parental schedules, but it could be done; it is no worse than the shifts to year-round school that many districts have already made.

The bigger challenge is for American culture to move away from glorifying activity for its own sake. We admire people who “get a lot done”, who are always busy; someone sitting quietly and thinking, staying in bed long enough to get a full night’s sleep, or even reading a book (unless it is work related or they are on vacation) is lazy and unproductive - possibly the American cardinal sin. This attitude is what keeps kids busy morning to night with band and speech team and booster clubs and who knows what else, all to make sure their college applications look “impressive”. We need to start valuing time to think, getting enough rest, doing a few things well rather than everything in a frenzy – for everyone, not just teenagers. Without this shift, activities will simply move to the morning hours before school and kids will still be short of sleep. With this shift, it would be easier for everyone to get enough sleep, to stay healthy, to enjoy life; and maybe adolescence would be easier to survive.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Colors of the Carnival

There is something about a carnival in the morning calm that appeals to me. Maybe it is because the colors are more noticeable without people moving around them, or that the shrieks and hurdy-gurdy sounds aren't there to distract me from the lines and shapes and colors. Whatever the reason, it was pleasant to wonder among the rides and tents with my camera this morning, capturing another rhythm of summer.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Robins Fledge

The magpies are done fledging and I no longer get the morning serenade. Now the juvenile robins are learning how to fly, which is marked by the regular thump of feathered body against window pane. Most of the errant juveniles end up fine and a little better educated, but occasionally one of the more enthusiastic fliers breaks its neck on the glass. I had never though of a house as a Darwinian agent, but I guess for robins it is.

We have settled into high summer recently. We haven't had any rain for a couple weeks, so the unirrigated grass is starting to turn tan and grain fields are ripening into gold. The hay has all been mown and the bales dot the fields. Most of the wildflowers are gone, but some lupine holds on; it was a prolific year for lupine. Lawn-mowing has slowed down to once a week, which makes my son happier. The abundant growth of May and June are passed in its blaze of green, and from here on out, the plants will get tanner and more fruitful.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


After the crawfish boil, we were left with leftovers: crawfish, sausage, and corn. Jambalaya seemed the most logical way to use it all up, so I went looking for recipes. Unfortunately, all the ones I found started with raw meat, so I studied them long enough to understand the process, then faked it. I was really glad it turned out well, because I had a dutch oven full of jambalaya! (I ended up freezing almost half of it.)

The seasoning on this will depend on how you spiced the crawfish boil and how hot your andouille is. We used the seasoning mix that came with the crawfish and everything was good and spicy, so all I needed to add here was salt, about 2 tsp. This version came out fairly light in color. I don't know how traditional it is, but the process is right and my kids ate it happily.

Jambalaya 10-12 people
2 C. cooked and shelled crawfish tails
2-3 andouille sausages, cooked
3-4 Tbs bacon grease
2 C diced onions
1/2 C chopped garlic scapes, or 3 cloves of garlic, minced
6 ears of corn, cooked
2 cans of tomatoes with chilis (such as RoTel brand)
3 C brown rice
6-7 C water (more if you like it a little soupy)
Salt and chili powder to taste, depending on the spicing of the leftovers

Melt half the bacon grease in a large dutch oven or heavy pot, then warm the crawfish and sausages in it (mostly to flavor the grease). While the meat warms, slice the kernels off the ears of corn. Remove the meat from the pot, add the rest of the bacon grease, melt it, and saute the onions and garlic (scapes) in the grease. After 5 minutes or so, add the corn kernels and the cans of tomatoes (no, add the tomatoes; recycle the cans). Cook for 10 minutes, then add the rice and water, bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the rice is cooked, about 50 minutes (depending on the variety of rice you use). Stir about halfway through and adjust seasonings; check the rice near the end to see if it needs more water.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Leaphorn and Chee

The first Leaphorn and Chee novels, by Tony Hillerman, were fun to read even though I don't care about mysteries, because they could be read at several levels at once. There was the basic plot (the mystery to be solved), the back story (Jim Chee's love life, Joe Leaphorn's wife dying and his retirement from the police force), and the "what it's really about" level (usually some variation on belonging and not belonging). The interplay between the three levels made the stories compelling novels, not just mysteries.

Unfortunately, as the series went on, Hillerman seems to have lost interest in it. The deepest level, which raised the first novels about the genre label, disappeared somewhere before the middle of the series. Then the back story started fading, becoming an armature to drape the plot on rather than a carefully-built structure of its own; Skeleton Man was almost exclusively plot. In The Shape Shifter, the last book (so far) in the series, the back story has gotten confused and even the plot is suffering. It isn't really even a Leaphorn and Chee book, since Chee shows up only as a way to frame the story; there is none of the interaction between the two men as they come at a mystery in different ways and different stages of life that enlivened the early books. The action takes place after Chee is married, which (according to the other books) takes place 4-5 years after Leaphorn retired - but in this book, Leaphorn retired a few months ago. Even the plot itself falls apart once you stop and think about it: it relies on the idea that a man could spend several months moving around the Four Corners area without anyone noticing him except his accomplices, so that he could come back several years later with a different identity and no one would know. Given the emphasis placed on how people in sparsely-populated areas notice strangers, this seems improbable at best. Now that the plot lines are failing, there doesn't seem to be much reason to read any new novels in the series.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Crawfish Boil

Doing a crawfish boil in Montana isn't easy. First, someone (like my son) needs to find out about it and decide that it needs to be done for his birthday dinner. Then you have to find the crawfish supplier. Most challenging, you have to get the crawfish to Montana still alive.

Our crawfish were shipped out Tuesday for delivery Wednesday, giving us an extra day for delays. Thanks to the wonders of automated emails, we knew they left Louisiana on Tuesday as planned, and FedEx was due to deliver them around 10:00 on Wednesday. Wednesday morning came and went - no crawfish. Wednesday afternoon - no crawfish. We checked the FedEx tracking site and found that the package was estimated to be delivered that morning by 10:00, but was still in Great Falls that night. Hmm...

Thursday morning, the FedEx truck showed up just before 10:00. When the driver opened the back door, we could smell the crawfish - not a good sign. With foreboding, we opened the box and confirmed that they really didn't smell like something we should be eating, even though some of them were still alive; the box had clearly been warm for quite a while. Reluctantly, I refused the package. The poor FedEx driver then got to drive that noxious package all over southwest Montana, all the way to Harlowton and back, on a hot, sunny day; apparently, when he got back to the FedEx facility that night, he ran the sorters out just by backing his truck into the bay.

I called the suppliers to let them know what had happened, and they were helpful and friendly about it. The crawfish season ends this week, so they promptly got another box on the way for delivery Friday - a day late, but still a good evening for a crawfish boil. In the meantime, I picked up some steaks for the birthday dinner.

Friday the crawfish arrived as intended and my son promptly dove into taking care of them (good thing he had the day off!). He cooled them and culled the dead ones and purged them and babied them all afternoon. He figured out how to cook the crawfish and the accompanying potatoes, corn, and andouille sausage, and took care of it himself, including making the dipping sauce. He even knew that it was all supposed to be served on newspapers on the table and eaten with fingers - possibly the best part of the meal from my kids' perspective. In spite of my scepticism, it turned out beautifully!

It took us a while to get the hang of shelling the crawfish and we all have a few scraped knuckles to show for it, but it was a lot of fun. We figured out pretty quickly that they are easier to shell while warm, so we shelled all the leftovers as soon as we finished eating and plan to use them for jambalaya on Sunday. I can see doing this once a year - but it's a lot of work for more often. The timing gets tricky, too, since the crawfish season ends just as the baby red potatoes are ready and before the local corn is.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Improv vs. Shakespeare

Maybe it's because I have two theater nuts in my family, but it seems to me that one way to divide people is by improv vs. Shakespeare.

Improv theater is all about accepting what is given to you and working with it, without any preconceived notions about what will happen next. Improv actors get very good at reading the subtle non-verbal cues that let them know what is coming up next, at going with the flow and accepting the changes that arise. They are used to working without a script or even a solid idea of the direction of the scene. They can stay in the moment and trust that the next moment will work out.

Shakespearean theater, on the other hand, is about working with a set text and implementing it well. Actors know in advance what they are supposed to do and say, what everyone else is supposed to do, and where it will happen. They have a plan to work from, and they can focus on making that plan work as well as they can. They can stay in the moment because they know that the next moment is already set.

Translated to normal people, improv types are comfortable going with the flow, without any idea of when or where something will happen or what is next. Shakespeare types want to know the full plan, what is happening next and when; then they can do their best work, secure in the knowledge of what is next. The difference is most noticeable when a Shakespeare type is expected to function well in an improv environment; they can't relax when no one can tell them what will happen next, so they have a hard time doing their job well.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Consumers as Peacemakers?

American consumerism gets trashed so often and so comprehensively that it was odd to run across a defense of it that doesn't rely on economic arguments about "growth is good". In An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America, Gary Cross makes an interesting point: "Consumerism does not demand self-denial for the individual to be a part of the group, and it allows people to distinguish themselves without denying the rights or existence of others (as have many political or even religious movements)." Buying goods allows people to mark who they are, without the need for tribal groups that exclude other people, and in so doing, it cuts down on violence. This could help explain why the United States, with all its conflicting social, ethnic, and religious groups, has had relatively little violence over the decades. It also serves as a caution for social activists, not so much about doing away with consumerism but about the need for something equally pacific to replace it.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Candied Rhubarb

When I defrosted my freezer today, I discovered that I had three 2-pint containers of chopped rhubarb left from last summer. (This is why I defrost it annually, to find out what I need to use up.) Since I am getting fresh rhubarb from my garden, I needed a way to use the old; once it has been frozen, it doesn't work so well for baking, so instead, I made candied rhubarb. First I steeped the rhubarb in simple syrup, then dehydrated it - for well over 24 hours. The flavor is unusual, but my kids find it strangely addictive as a snack.

Candied Rhubarb
For each 2-pint container of chopped rhubarb, put 1 C water and 1 C sugar in a big pot. Bring to a boil and simmer 3-5 minutes until all the sugar has dissolved and the water is clear. Add rhubarb and simmer for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat and let it sit for an hour or two. Drain rhubarb (save the syrup) and spread out on dehydrator racks. Dry until chewy, 24 hours or more for my dehydrator. Store in a closed container.

To use the syrup, place a couple tablespoons of it in a clear glass, then add club soda, and ice as desired. It makes a pretty, refreshing drink.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Foundations of Democracy

Back in 1883, Alexander de Toqueville noted that "Municipal institutions constitute the strength of free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people's reach, they teach men how to use and enjoy it. A nation may establish a free government, but without municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty." (Democracy in America, Vol 1, Chapter V) Maybe this is why democracy often doesn't export well: it has to grow from the ground up rather than be imposed from above. Instead of creating a democratic national government in a country with no history of civic involvement, maybe the best starting point is in the villages, where people can learn the basics with things they understand and people they know. Once they are comfortable with that, then democracy can flow upwards. More likely, it is best to start at both ends at once; but leaving warlords in charge of village would seem to be a prescription for democracy's failure.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Odd Gifts

"Every problem comes bearing in its hands a gift."

Several years ago, I figured out that my daughter is mildly dyslexic. She has no problem reading because she recognizes words by their shape, but slowing down to sound out a new word is tricky, as is reading out loud. The biggest problem has been her spelling; she knows all the letters in a word, but has trouble getting them in the right order. The dyslexia affects her math, too, since getting numbers in the right order is even more critical than letters. I didn't mention dyslexia to her then because I have an aversion to labels - too often they become a noun defining the entire person instead of an adjective describing one component, and "I am dyslexic" becomes "I am a dyslexic".

Last fall, her frustration with her spelling was threatening to destroy her sense of competence, so I told her why she has so much trouble with it. She was happy to know that there is a reason for her fight with spelling, that she wasn't just stupid; the idea that she sees letters as three-dimensional objects that can be viewed from both sides made perfect sense to her, and helped explain why she has trouble keeping track of 'b's and 'd's, or 'p's and 'q's. Since then, we have explored how the dyslexia affects her and how she can work with it to accomplish her goals. I have worked hard to present it as just another attribute, like brown hair or blue eyes, rather than a defect, and as a type of creativity (there is more than one way to see things, even letters).

Tonight the payback occurred. I asked her to list three good things about herself, and the first one was, "I'm dyslexic; I like being able to see both sides of something."