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At last, lilacs

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I have been waiting for years for the lilac bush to bloom for the first time. This year it finally did, though only in a small way.

The apple trees are looking great. There was a chance of frost on April 16, which I was afraid would ruin the apple blooms when they were most vulnerable. But the the frost didn’t happen. Here’s hoping for a good apple year.

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Click here for high-resolution version.

Old Salem farmer’s market

I don’t get out much. But spring weather and the prospect of food are pretty good motivators.

One of the best farmer’s markets in this area is the Cobblestone market at Old Salem. Old Salem is the Salem half of Winston-Salem, a place with colonial roots going back to the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania to Georgia. Salem was on that road (which also passed just half a mile east of the abbey). The settlers were Moravians, a communal Protestant denomination with roots in Germany.

The market opened just last week. There were plenty of greenhouse items, including starter plants, lettuces, and spring greens. If you walk two minutes down old Main Street from the farmer’s market, you come to Salem Tavern. George Washington slept there. They offer a traditional cuisine, competent but also tourist-friendly. Going there is always a treat.

This is a hostess in one of the restored colonial buildings in Old Salem. Her costume is handmade and authentic — silk taffeta and linen.

Salem Tavern

Al fresco under the arbor behind the tavern

I did not order or eat this burger! Another guest did. Photographed by permission. That’s sweet potato waffle fries.

Guilt tripping at 41 mpg (or less)

My 2017 Fiat 500 Pop

I am a tree hugger, and I confess a terrible moral failing. I love cars.

It was back in the 1960s, as a teenager, when I developed a Jaguar fetish. Having one as the family car would have been as impossible as having the moon. But even in the American provinces, one might occasionally see one — a Jaguar XKE, maybe, or a MK2 sedan. And of course you could see them on television, and in the movies. I would have sold my soul for either of them. I loved Mercedes almost as much. We even had a Mercedes, bought used, in my high school years. It was a 1963 220SE. I still dream about driving that car. In my dreams, it’s a symbol of a precision machine, working perfectly, almost immortal, and thoroughly mine — a good dream symbol for sure. Typically, in the dream, I go down to the basement and discover to my surprise that it’s still there. I turn the key. The dash lights up. It starts, and its sound is like music. German music, for sure. Probably Bach.

As an adult, I have always bought sensible and moderately priced cars. I indulged my unaffordable car fetishes with rentals. Several times, when I lived in San Francisco, I’d rent a Jaguar for a road trip down U.S. 1 to Los Angeles. That was enough to prevent my fetish from leading me into something foolish.

When I retired, I had a seven-year-old Jeep Wrangler, which I bought new in San Francisco. I still have the Jeep. Its mileage is very low. I will never part with it. But I also don’t want to wear out the Jeep. I see the Jeep now as a beast of burden and as a special-use vehicle for bad weather or for outings that involve bad roads. Sometimes it goes a month without being started. To avoid wearing out the Jeep, six years ago I leased a Smart car. It was the cheapest transportation available. Mercedes was advertising Smart car leases for $99 a month. I liked the first Smart car so much that I leased a second one. That lease just expired, and I returned my second Smart car to the dealer just two days ago.

For months, I thought about how to replace the Smart car, since Mercedes no longer sells the gasoline Smart car in the United States. (There is an electric model, but its range is too low to meet my rural needs). Should I lease? Should I buy? I considered the low-end Volkswagen. But I did not like the local Volkswagen dealership. My next idea was the smallest Fiat — the Fiat 500. Fiat now owns Jeep and Chrysler. So I went to the Jeep-Fiat dealer in Winston-Salem to try out the Fiats.

I picked out the least expensive Fiat 500 on the lot and went for a drive. It just happened to be a dignified color — a dark gray. As soon as I started the engine, it had charmed my socks off, and I knew that I would buy it. If you watch some of the YouTube reviews of Fiat 500s, you’ll see that they have charmed the socks off many people. A couple of reviewers compared it with a playful dog. That’s it exactly. Fido.

If you love cars, you look back on the cars you have driven with the same sort of sentiment as old lovers. If you’re my age, those memories will go back a long time.

The first car I ever really drove was my father’s 1952 Chevrolet Sedan Delivery. I was about eleven years old. I’d pilfer the keys and drive the old Chevrolet on the farm roads behind our house. Yes — I knew how to use a clutch at eleven years old. I’m not really sure how I learned, unless my father or older brother taught me. Or maybe I learned on my grandfather’s tractor. Another car that stands out in my memory is my 1974 Toyota Land Cruiser. If only I had kept it! But, having learned my lesson, I will never part with my 2001 Jeep Wrangler.

I strongly suspect that the Fiat will be a keeper. Driving it is a blast. Everything about it inspires affection. Assuming that it holds up well, then both the Fiat and the Jeep will still be stashed under shelter up the hill, still running strong, on the day I kick the bucket.

Should we feel guilty about our automobiles, given the state of the world? Yes, I believe we should. What cars have done — and what cars have done to us — is terrible. But I also suspect that, 500 years from now, people will look at images of our cars, or look at them in museums, and envy the daylights out of us. We actually drove them. Those cars burned fossil fuels and almost led to the end of the world. But they were beautiful.

The 1957 Fiat 500, which inspired the current Fiat design

A 1952 Chevrolet Sedan Delivery, the first car I ever drove (off road)

A 1963 Mercedes 220SE. I was with one on the day it finally died.

My 2001 Jeep Wrangler

A 1974 Toyota Land Cruiser

Ken’s third book is out

Ken’s third book is out. You can buy it in bookstores tomorrow (April 10, 2018) or you can order it from Amazon now.

I hardly need to say how proud I am of Ken, with his third book published at the age of 34. Here’s a link to the Kirkus review. And here’s a link to the Amazon page.

And as long as I’m feeling proud, check out the dedication in the photo below. I have been thanked in the back of many books. But this is the first that ever got me a dedication.

Tilling time

Nothing excites chickens like a freshly tilled garden. They’d better enjoy it now, because after it’s planted they’ll be banned for the season.

The murder of the inverted pyramid

Once upon a time, when newspapers were both noble and strong, editors and publishers regarded readers’ time as very valuable. Editors and publishers understood that newspaper readers were trying to absorb as much information as possible in the least amount of time. They knew that most readers would not finish most stories. Readers would read until they had absorbed enough of a story to meet their needs, then they’d move on to another story, or move on with their day. Once upon a time, editors and publishers did not try to manipulate readers to rip off readers’ time and attention.

These days, many publications — especially on-line publications — actually withhold information and tease readers with information in order to extract more attention and more clicks. Headlines promise much more than the story contains. There are far fewer editors these days to advocate for the reader. The closer a publication is to the lower end of the business, the harder it tries to gain clicks and attention with the least possible information. Reading a newspaper used to be an efficient use of time. But reading on line is increasingly a kind of warfare, in which the reader has to fight with the publication to get at the information (and there may not be much information, no matter how many paragraphs you read).

One of my pet peeves is the anecdotal lede. Everybody writes them now, and there is no bigger time-waster in the world. A lede is the first paragraph of a story. Editors spell it lede because lead has a very different meaning in publishing, a meaning that goes back to the days of Linotypes. Anecdotal ledes, though, go back at least to the 1980s, when they suddenly became a fad with every newspaper reporter in the world. It was claimed — it still is claimed, actually — that anecdotal ledes “pull the reader into the story.”

No they don’t. They waste about five paragraphs of reader time and give reporters a chance to show off what bad writers they are. And who says we want to be pulled in, even if an anecdotal lede could trick us into that? I keep a collection of anecdotal ledes. Here are a few examples:

The New York Times:

• On a Sunday in early December, Marcus Brauchli, the executive editor of The Washington Post, summoned some of the newspaper’s most celebrated journalists to a lunch at his home, a red brick arts-and-crafts style in the suburb of Bethesda, Md.

Aren’t we just dying to know what was served?

I’m an alumnus of the Winston-Salem Journal and have watched that once-great local newspaper, which once won a Pulitzer, shrivel into oblivion. My collection of bad ledes from that newspaper is particularly large, because they never would have gotten past the copy desk when I was there.

The Winston-Salem Journal:

• John Barr is sipping a cup of coffee in the kitchen as his wife, Alysse, finishes up the baths of their three children, Ty, 5; Hunter, 3; and Gionni, 1.

Wow. It was almost like being there.

• Hello Kitty was popular. So was soccer. Hannah Montana was there, but only slightly more common than a hammerhead shark fighting a swordfish.

Sounds like my high school, too.

• Elizabeth Nesmith couldn’t talk or eat Sunday afternoon.

Me neither.

• As the sky over Washington Park turned hazy Friday night, Joe Tappe strolled down the sidewalk from his house at Gloria and Park avenues, crunching over fallen leaves and carrying a plate of dip.

By the fourth paragraph, maybe we’ll know where he was going.

Der Spiegel:

• The blades of the wind turbine are made of plain wood painted red, and they measure exactly 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) long. Their curved edges are only roughly sanded.

I am so pulled into the turbine!

When I encounter anecdotal ledes, I skip immediately to the fifth paragraph to see if the story begins there. If it doesn’t, I move on. When I was at the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle, whenever we had the perennial debate about why we were losing readers, I’d always say that it was because the anecdotal ledes were driving readers away.

It’s not uncommon these days, in on-line publications and even in Washington Post op-eds, to see the lede withheld until the very last paragraph. That is nothing less than abuse of the reader.

Maybe I’m hopelessly old-fashioned, but, as I see it, readers have rights. One of those rights, when reading for news, is the right to the inverted pyramid. But I’m just a voice in the wilderness, in a time when we need the inverted pyramid more than ever. I don’t have a clue what to do about it, other than not to give our attention to those who abuse it.

What’s wrong with conservatives?

In my rather long lifetime, the depravity of the conservative mind has never been more on display than it is today. Never in my lifetime has conservatism been more aggressive or used viler tactics in its efforts to remake the world in its own repugnant image. We see it in the vilification of the poor, the glorification of the rich, the rejection of science, the carelessness about the state of our planet, the love of propaganda, the preference for tyrants in politics and bigots as preachers, the racism, the constant need for scapegoats, the irrational fears, the love of hatred.

Now conservatism is learning to be afraid its own children, because it is increasingly difficult to brainwash these values into the young.

Here are some words from Ted Nugent, a member of the board of the National Rifle Association: “The lies from these poor, mushy brained children who have been fed lies and parrot lies, I really feel sorry for them. It’s not only ignorant and dangerously stupid — it’s soulless… I’m afraid to say and it hurts me to say this, but the evidence is irrefutable: They have no soul.”

When I was a child during the Civil Rights era, it was African-Americans who were said by at least some conservatives to have no soul. Now it’s our children, if they dare to be disobedient. Conservatives are making great moral progress, aren’t they?

A group that calls itself United States Parents Involved in Education says: “Government K-12 schools are teaching politically biased social justice values.”

Justice, you see, is a dangerous thing to the conservative mind. Government has no business getting involved in justice. Justice is of no concern to young people. I’ll come back to the matter of justice in a second.

This is a moment in history when the smokes of Auschwitz and the vices of the authoritarian mind still linger in the air. We’re running out of time to call out conservatives for the depravity of their values. We still don’t understand quite how they did it, but they are back in power, in the U.S. and elsewhere. They are choosing as their leaders the type of person they always choose — psychopathic, belligerent miscreants who model everything that is worst about their obedient and fawning followers.

And yet we are being told that conservative values are just a matter of “moral diversity” and that conservative thinking deserves not just respect, but equal respect.

I have in mind, of course, Jonathan Haidt and his “moral foundations theory.” Insofar as Haidt’s theory is merely descriptive, I have no doubt that he’s right. The values most cherished by liberals, according to this theory, are justice, fairness, caring, and the avoidance of harm. Whereas the values most cherished by conservatives are obedience to authority, a respect for hierarchy, loyalty, purity, and the preservation of “in group” traditions.

Haidt, I believe, would deny it if challenged, but he has made it quite clear in his writing and his interviews that we should see liberal and conservative values as equally valid. Haidt is on the board of a well-intentioned organization called Better Angels. “Let’s depolarize America,” they say on their web page. The idea is to “bring together” liberals and conservatives and “have a dialogue.” This is supposed to promote understanding and harmony by helping us to see the other side’s underlying values.

Maybe that works for some people. But it doesn’t work for me.

What conservatives are saying about the activist students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School provides us with a clear example. To the conservative mind, the students are mushy brained, ignorant, dangerously stupid, and soulless. The moral error of these students, to the conservative mind, is a failure to be obedient to conservative authority. (Never mind that the students have the support of their own parents). The conservative mind even goes so far as to openly say that “social justice values” are wrong and dangerous and should not be taught, because to the conservative mind social justice is politically biased. “Government” schools are accused of teaching social justice; their private schools wouldn’t dare. To the conservative mind, obedience to conservative authority is more important than social justice. They demand that their children be just like them.

Notice also the telling nature of the many insults that conservatives threw at the children. Emma Gonzalez was called a “skinhead lesbian” by a Republican politician. That insult expresses the conservative value of purity, which is related to the conservative value of sacralization. That the insult might have done harm or was unfair was secondary. In-group purity and conformity come first.

As a liberal, I certainly recognize that there is a certain value in conservative values. Liberals obey the law, which is a form of authority. In fact we liberals have a sacralized attitude toward the rule of law. Liberals value loyalty — but loyalty doesn’t trump justice, nor does loyalty trump the law. To the liberal mind, justice, fairness, and caring are always primary. John Rawls based an entire theory of justice on “justice as fairness.”

I’m really getting very tired of being told (usually by the people I call radical centrists) that we liberals just don’t understand conservatives and that we are failing to “reach out” to them. But I understand conservatives very well. I have no need to reach out to them, because we couldn’t get away from them (or their propaganda) if we tried. As for radical centrists, I hold them partly responsible. Centrists, with their claim to superior, “nonpartisan” understanding, should have held the line against right-wing radicals rather than putting their fingers in their ears.

It was centrists who met the rise of right-wing radicalism with the notion of “balance.” Centrists insisted on a left-right symmetry that was never there. To preserve a superior status for centrism, they pretended that partisans on the left were just as bad as partisans on the right. After the 2016 election, some centrists partly came to their senses. But I’m still waiting for centrists to admit how wrong they’ve been and to tell us how they’re going to atone for it. I’m sorry, but “Better Angels” is just another attempt to make a big show of centrist virtue and to present centrism as the solution. Centrism is not the solution. It is part of the problem.

What I’m about to say is the sort of thing that horrifies radical centrists and anyone who believes that our polarization can be bridged by understanding. Notice also that we liberals are scolded for not understanding conservatives, but conservatives are never scolded for not understanding liberals. Frankly I don’t think that conservatives can understand liberals, because they just don’t have the neural wiring. They believe us to be what Rush Limbaugh says we are, so no wonder they hate us.

I understand conservative values. It’s easy to understand conservative values. But conservative values are secondary values. If secondary values become primary values, they become wrong and dangerous. I’ll go even further. Any mind than can value obedience to authority over justice, fairness, or caring is a mind that is diseased, a mind that is morally stunted.

The secondary values that conservatism makes primary (obedience to authority, say) may be very useful if you’re a church or an oligarch and you need for people to think and do as they’re told. The secondary values of conservatism (purity, say) may be very useful if you’re a white majority trying to preserve your privilege and your decaying culture against demands for justice and equality from people you don’t like. The secondary values of conservatism (sacralization, say) may be very useful if your ossified beliefs are incompatible with science and the exigencies of the modern world, but you simply don’t have the wiring to modify those beliefs.

Any world that is fit to live in will put justice, fairness, and caring first. Those are the values that are the keys to human progress. That is what Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King called the arc of justice. At every turn, conservatives and their values have sought to block the arc of justice, and they have called that virtue.

I will not be told that it is wrong of me not to respect the moral values of conservatives. The opposite is true. The misplaced moral values of conservatives are to be condemned. Conservatives can practice their moral values in private all they want (though I pity their children). But once conservatives bring their stunted values into public affairs, then people like me acquire a moral burden. That moral burden is to tell conservatives (it may be necessary to be rude) where they can go, and what they can do with their moral values.

Update 1: Further reading, from an academic.

Update 2: This piece by Thomas B. Edsall in the New York Times appeared after I wrote this post. Edsall’s piece is a survey of academic literature on the rise of authoritarianism and the relation to Trump. Edsall writes:

“If an aggressive, domineering authoritarianism is a prime motivator for many Trump supporters, as Smith and Hanley contend, the clash between Republicans and Democrats is likely to become more hostile and warlike.”

Indeed. Count me among those who will not silently and passively sit on the sidelines while an aggressive, domineering authoritarianism tries to see what it can get away with.

Update 3: Madeline Albright in the New York Times: Fascism poses a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of World War II

Update 4: Ted Nugent says Democrats should be shot like coyotes

Chow mein (approximately)

As I mentioned in the previous post on Polish pierogi, if you can’t make things authentic, at least you can make things good. The fact that we don’t have either the skills or the ingredients to do exotic cuisines authentically doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take inspiration from those cuisines and do the best we can. There’s an analogy to musicianship. The fact that we’re not all professional musicians and didn’t go to Juilliard should never stop us from making the best homemade music that we can make.

But back to the kitchen.

For the chow mein, I used whole wheat linguini for the pasta. The vegetables are broccoli, carrots, cabbage, onion, red pepper, celery, and garlic. The sauce is a combination of soy sauce, rice vinegar, honey, vegetable bouillon paste, and harissa sauce, which is a Tunisian pepper sauce that I always stock. I always have soy sauce and rice vinegar, but that’s about all I ever have that’s specifically Chinese.

No wok? A big skillet will do.

Just from experimentation, I think I have at least partly figured out the secret of wok cooking (using a big skillet). The reason you need high heat is to quickly boil away the water that leaks from the vegetables. The presence of water being converted to steam greatly lowers the temperature. But once the vegetables slow down on leaking water, you must be very careful and work quickly lest things get too hot. Once the wok starts to dry out, the browning process begins. You want the vegetables as dry as you can get them without overcooking them, and you want as much brown as you can get, because that’s where the umami is. Practice is required. It alls happens very fast. But this chow mein left no vegetable water in the bottom of the plate (or in the wok). The shiny brown color comes not only from the brownness of the sauces (which also must be largely boiled off by high heat), but also from the browning of the vegetables. The cooking oil makes everything shine.

Tofu would have gone very nicely with this. But I had roasted peanuts as a second course.

Pierogi (approximately)

I have never seen a filled dumpling or a filled pastry that I didn’t like. Have you?

Earlier today, I came across a list of comfort foods from every American state. What a list! Here it is. The one that kept my attention, though, was Ohio — pierogi.

The only thing holding me back was that I didn’t want to eat all that dough — white dough, anyway. It so happened that I’d been grinding wheat this morning. So why not try to make pierogi from fresh-ground whole-wheat flour? (For my post on how easy it is to grind your own flour — with the right machine, anyway — see here.)

I know absolutely nothing about Polish cuisine. I wish I did. But in the spirit of intrepid cooking, I’ll try anything, keeping in mind the principle that, at least you can make it good even if you can’t make it authentic. For basic instructions on pierogi-making, I consulted this. I steamed the pierogi in the steam oven rather than boiling them, and after steaming them I gently browned them in butter.

For the filling, I used potatoes, peas, browned onions, and celery. From English cookery, we know that a certain kind of alchemy happens when peas, celery, and other savory things are contained inside a crust. The filling was delicious. My sauce — a sweet and sour pepper-paste sauce — was probably more Asian than Polish. But from a bit of Googling it would appear that there are absolutely no rules about what to serve with pierogi. The limit is your imagination and what you happen to have in your kitchen.

Pastas and dumplings have a lower glycemic index than bread, so pierogis would be a good way to get your grains.

The other two photos, below, are recent makings in the grain department — whole wheat banana bread, and a cornbread luncheon sandwich of peanut butter and onion, made from leftover cornbread.

Railway project #3

A southbound Norfolk and Southern train approaches Pine Hall, North Carolina. I caught this train unexpectedly while giving the campaign manager for a state senate candidate an environmental tour of the Walnut Cove area. The train is about two miles north of Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station. Click here for high-resolution version.