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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Museum of Fine Art, Houston

I'm writing this from George Bush International Airport in Houston, after spending five days in Port Neches with my grandmother Jane. It was a stressful visit. She's 87 years old, physically and mentally frail, and has clearly crossed the threshold of being too old to live alone. Yet, she refuses to leave her home and even just bought a new car. The visit was in part to convince her to move. My father was her only child and he's gone, so it falls on me to do this, or at least, I'm taking it on myself. I was unsuccessful, yet there's room for optimism, amongst the worry; she's worse off than I realized.

I left a bit early today, because I wanted to visit the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. I've heard that Houston is an arts mecca, so I figured it would be good. It didn't disappoint. I look forward to bringing the family there when we come back down at Thanksgiving to visit Grandma. Anyway, below are a few crappy phone shots of a few of the paintings that inspired me. I wish I would a gotten a shot of one of the Remington's. Now off to Helsinki for two weeks of work. I pray that the reserves of energy and inspiration are there.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Book Review: The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. By George Packer

This is a great book. It reminded me of Underworld by Tom Delillo, a 90’s novel about the decline of America. As it turns out America had years of decline ahead of it in the 90’s, as Packer shows. Like Delillo, he does this by telling the stories of individuals in various walks of life, from a factory worker in Youngstown, Ohio, to a Wall Street banker, to a Washington lobbyist, to a Silicon Valley billionaire, to a small business man in North Carolina, as well as many others. It paints a picture that is so surreal at times that it proves the maxim, ‘reality can be stranger than fiction.’

Along the way, Packer makes the argument that we have arrived at a new uncertain place. The safeguards enacted after the Great Depression have either been removed or are no longer suited to today’s world. Moreover, the 2008 economic crisis didn’t really result in significant reform of the system, suggesting that a deeper crisis may have had its benefits. More than once, reading the book, I was struck by the sense that we are living in interesting times.

Like any great book, the narrative speaks to the reader on several levels. First, there are the details of the lives Packer treats. For example, Tammy Thomas, a Youngstown factory worker, is the daughter of a drug addict, who is raised by her solid great-grandmother, and who herself raises good kids while working a factory job. She quits the job at 40, once her kids are grown, goes back to school, and becomes a community organizer in a deeply depressed Youngstown. As her story is told, Packer talks about the decline of Youngstown, from a thriving blue collar city, to a town with increasing troubles as those blue collar jobs are lost.

You learn about a poor family in Tampa, Florida, and their desperate efforts to keep a roof over their heads and food in their mouths, with little hope of reaching the middle class. And at the other end of the spectrum, you learn about the life of a Wall Street banker, who makes millions by the time he’s 30, seemingly without much effort, and the political idealist, who gets rich as a lobbyist and retires early to write a book about the broken Washington that he benefited from. Taken together, Packer makes the convincing argument of the increasing stratification of the U.S. into the haves and the have-nots.

Anyway, the book is great. The individual stories are compelling, and then taken together they paint a broad and fascinating picture of our country. The reader is left with the notion that we are in new and unprecedented times, that there are problems we’re unsure of how to solve, and that it is unclear what the future holds. In other words, we live in exciting, if troublesome, times. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Too Busy, Travel, Biking, Strava

This semester ended with a stagger across the finish line; an over-full first half, wore me down for the second half. But no rest for the weary: after entering my last grades Friday, and working through the weekend on research with a close colleague, I'm off today for a visit to my Texas grandmother, and then on to Finland for two weeks of research. I return on June 7, when summer begins for me.

One of the benefits of knowing you're going to be gone for three weeks is that it gets you out. I've been doing a lot of mountain biking over the past three weeks. I love my new bike -- it's so fast and light -- and also exploring the Pattee Canyon area. 

I've also come to love Strava, which tracks your rides on GPS. Here's a couple of rides that I've done in the past two weeks: Pattee South and University Peak High Traverse. On the first ride/link, I dead ended on old logging roads up off of Larch Camp Road in an attempt to push a route through to the Deer Creek drainage. On the second ride/link, I found a logging road high on University Peak during a hike-a-bike, and later discovered that it links the road to the TV towers with the drainage containing the descent to the Cox Property.

I also raced Unravel the Scratch Gravel in Helena on Mother's Day, which was fun (here's the strava link). Jen wanted to go, visit her family, and race. So I raced too and realized that I've done so much of it over the years that it comes natural to me. I look forward to doing a bit more. I race with the big boys in Cat 1, and my goal is to not get last place, which I achieved in Helena.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Omnivore's Dilemma

In the early pages of this book, the author warns the reader that if you don't want your relationship with food challenged, you shouldn't read on. It's true. The book definitely challenged me, shook me up a bit, but in a good way.

First off, I didn't know what an omnivore was. Now I know that it's an animal that can eat many things. Most animals are specialists: cows eat grass, koala's eat eucalyptus, etc. Being omnivores has provided our species with an obvious competitive advantage over the course of millenia. However, today in the U.S., with so much cheap, high calorie food available, and without a stable food culture telling us what and how to eat, the author argues convincingly that omnivorousness has become a curse. Take the current obesity epidemic in the U.S. as a prime example.

The book is written in four parts, each culminating with a meal. The first is devoted to the industrial agricultural complex in the U.S., and specifically focuses on corn, which is massively subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer. Because of this, corn products are extremely cheap and so are used everywhere: cereals, preservatives, fructose (sugar), and for fattening livestock for slaughter, to name a few. Moreover, industrial corn is grown in monoculture, which requires large amounts of petrochemical fertilizer, resulting in environmental degradation. After reading this part of the book, the reader is left with the impression that our mainstream food production system in the U.S. is pretty messed up.

Part two of the book is devoted to 'industrial organic'. The main example here for me -- and which is also in the book -- is the organic lettuce Jen (my wife) always buys at Costco, and also, Cascadian Farms products. Much of the products at Whole Foods, or the Good Food Store here in Missoula, fall into the industrial organic category. Industrial organic farms are better than non-organic in that they avoid chemical fertilizers, among other things, but they employ the same sort of large-scale, fossil fuel intensive mono-culture practices. Also, labels like 'free range chickens' are misnomers in that although the door to the chicken shed might be left open, the chickens never leave. So after this part of the book, the reader is left with the notion that industrial organic is better, but it's still industrial, and hence far from perfect. As the Cascadian Farms CEO (and founder) says, cynically, "eventually everything morphs into the way things are."

Part three of the book focuses on 'the new organic', which is represented by the sustainable, local farm. For this, the author visited a farm in West Virginia that was completely sustainable. For example, the cows mowed (ate) the grass, and then the chickens followed and picked the cow pies for grubs and further fertilized the grass, which grows abundantly. The farmer sold the chickens, their eggs, and the cows (and also pigs) for food. Everything thrived and was in near-perfect balance. Farms like this are utopian in nature, lying far from the mainstream, and so it might not be a surprise that the farmer was zealous and highly idealistic. Although such places are important as examples of what is possible, and the food from such farms is as good as it gets, this 'otherness' turned me off a bit. Real change reaches the masses, not just the select few on the mountain top.

And finally, in part four, the author hunted and gathered a meal. He killed a wild pig in Northern California, gathered wild mushrooms in the Sierras, made his own salt, dived for abalone, harvested wild yeast from the air. He was clearly most proud of this meal. But I have to say that the amount of time (which equals money for most) and fossil fuel expended for this meal would certainly rival any from the industrial chain. Still, it made me want to take up hunting, gathering mushrooms, and capturing yeast for baking bread from the air.

The book was good. It challenged me and made me want to be better. Also, I feel like I know more about where my food comes from now, which disturbed me, but I'm thankful for it. It made me want to buy a freezer, local meat and vegetables, and start hunting. On the other hand, it was written from a place of deep privilege. The author is one of the few who could afford all of the above, and though he tried to take an objective stance, his prejudices were clear: the purer the mode of procuring the food, the better. Whereas it seems to me the 'best' is not the 'purest', but rather what balances ideals with what can realistically impact the most people and the world.