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But tonight, frost

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My deciduous magnolias are stunning this year. But tonight we’re expecting frost, and they can’t take much of that. All the other early blooms should be fine. But the deciduous magnolias hate frost.

Neither here nor now, please

Faroe Islands sheep. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Click here for high resolution version.

I was on jury duty all of last week. It was educational, but it also was suffocating. There were more than a hundred people in the jury pool, and sometimes we were obliged to sit in a too-small holding room for more than two hours at a time, waiting to be called into the courtroom when it was time to pick a jury. By the time the judge dismissed the jury pool on Friday, I was burned out.

The more I’m involuntarily exposed to what the French call trop de monde — too much world, or, too many people — the more I try to compensate with some form of escape. Friday evening I was bored with the bleak last episode of “Masters of the Air,” so I found one of those relaxation videos on YouTube and played it on the (pretty big) television screen. It was seascapes in the Faroe Islands, beautifully shot from drones, good medicine for a jury duty hangover:

I can’t imagine landscapes more thrilling than places where steep mountains come up against the sea. There is some of this in California. But some of the best of such landscapes on the planet, and the most accessible to travelers, are to be found in Ireland and Scotland. I’ve been to the west coast of Ireland, and to some of the Scottish Islands including the Outer Hebrides. Now I’m trying to figure out how, and when, I might be able to work in a trip to the Faroe Islands someday.

The Faroe Islands are a Danish territory, more or less midway between northern Scotland and Iceland. In reading an overview of the islands’ history on Wikipedia, one of the things that surprised me was just how quickly the church reached a place so remote and so far from Rome. According to Wikipedia, that was in the late 10th or early 11th centuries. Unsurprisingly, it was conquerers who brought the church to the islands, offering “salvation” while seizing the land. As remote as the islands are, the population today is surprisingly great — more than 50,000 people.

I also learned on Wikipedia that there is a remarkably rich literary history in the islands’ language, Faroese. Some Googling led to a Faroese writer named Heðin Brú, who died in 1987. One of his novels, in an English translation, was published in 1970 as The Old Man and His Sons. The novel was first published in Faroese in 1940. I found a copy of the 1970 translation on eBay and have ordered it.

Given how quickly the world is getting warmer, if I were young and born south of, say, the 40th parallel, I think I would try to figure out how to migrate farther north. Nothing much happens in Canada. But I suspect that Scotland, and the Nordic and Baltic countries, have a bright future, as long as Putin and whoever succeeds him can be contained.

⬆︎ eBay photo

⬆︎ Google Books

A snapshot of Scottish cooking, 1925-1946

Newly rebound in cloth, with the old cover used as a label

I hope I am wrong, but I am reluctantly inclined to conclude that traditional Scottish cooking is almost completely lost, just as my native cuisine, Southern American cooking, also is almost completely lost. Though there are older people who remember it (both here and no doubt in Scotland), and though there are even a few living souls who can still cook that way (both here and probably in Scotland), few people do (both here and probably in Scotland). As for Southern American cooks, most have thrown in the towel and, in the name of cost, convenience, and saving time, even use ultraprocessed foods. Others, like me, clean it up to make it healthier — even better. I’m not by any means suggesting that good cooking is a lost art. In many ways, the state of the art has gotten much better (though by no means cheaper), thanks largely to the great cooking schools, to travel, and to the better sort of restaurants.

Still, one can’t revise a traditional cuisine without knowing what it used to be. My reasoning was that, if the 1943 edition of Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking is a good reference for American cooking, then there might be a reference on Scottish cooking from the same period. I scoured eBay for old books. A book that is frequently mentioned in references on Scottish cuisine is from 1909, The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie. That book, though, seems to be both rare and expensive. I wonder, too, if it isn’t a reference that is too fancy, given that Virginia Woolf wrote about it in the Times Literary Supplement in 1909. I’m also much more interested in provincial cooking than in the cooking that was done in the big houses of lords and ladies.

I came across a couple of copies of a more humble, and much less expensive, reference: The Scottish Women’s Institutes Cookery Book, sixth edition, 1946. Though this book went through multiple editions after 1925 and clearly sold well, I suspect that few copies survive because the book was cheaply bound, with heavy staples and a paper cover. People probably just threw them away after they fell apart. The book was conceived and printed in Edinburgh. The gathering of recipes was about as honest as you can get. Members of the Scottish Women’s Institutes from all over the country were asked to send in recipes.

After I received my copy, I resolved to rebind it and try to preserve it. To have used it in its tattered condition would have caused further tattering. Preserving it meant removing the staples (which had gotten rusty), improvising with heavy sting to hold the pages together, and making a new cloth cover.

I have often said that the best soup I ever had in my life was a Scotch broth that I had in a small restaurant in Edinburgh. That was in 1985, on Princes Street, I believe, downhill from the castle. That soup probably was the most authentic Scottish cooking I’ve ever had. Though the barley is essential, I suspect that Scotch broth can’t really be made without bones. I remembered the Edinburgh soup as green but probably misremembered that the green came from peas, since the green in this recipe comes from leaves and leeks. A runner of beef, I believe, is a lean piece of steak from the shoulder. A Swede turnip is what Americans call a rutabaga.

This cookbook, as well as the eleven Waverley novels that I have read so far, strongly suggest that much of the Scottish pride in its cuisine relates to game. The treatment of vegetables, though, is barely short of cruel. I am very curious about a vegetable that appears to be still common in Scotland but which is hard to find in the U.S. That’s celeriac, which this book calls heart of celery or just celery. I’m still looking for some celeriac because I’ve never had any. But a friend who recently found some in the Asheville Whole Foods said that it’s smooth, like potatos, and reminded him more of apple and pine than celery. Sooner or later, I will find some celeriac.

The front cover was intact, but …

… I had to remove it to restore the binding.

Having removed the rusty staples, I improvised on the rebinding, using string.

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Falling for Figaro

Would it be possible to go wrong with a smart and sweet romantic comedy set mostly in the Scottish Highlands with an operatic soundtrack? Not to my taste!

Some of the critics didn’t like it as much as I did. For example, the Wikipedia entry quotes someone at “The performances are what make Falling for Figaro an entertaining distraction, even as the film plays out exactly as you would expect.”

Of course it plays out exactly as we would expect. Most good drama does. About one-third into this film, after we meet the Max character, who, like the heroine Millie, is a singing student with dreams of success, it’s easy to guess that we’re going to end with a duet, on a stage somewhere. That’s not a spoiler. That’s just the way it has to be done in a smart and sweet romantic comedy set mostly in the Scottish Highlands with an operatic soundtrack.

The opera selections are chosen to appeal to everyone, not just opera fans. The musical performances are as good as the acting. The Scotland gags are hilarious, especially the ones involving Scottish plumbing and the pouring of Scotch. There’s a brief trip to Edinburgh, and some scenes in London. According to Wikipedia, the stage scenes were filmed in Glasgow. This film has a timeless charm that somehow reminds me of Princess Bride.

Falling for Figaro is on Netflix.

The arc of justice

U.S. marshals escort Ruby Bridges to school. New Orleans, Louisiana, November 1960. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

–Theodore Parker, 1810-1860

We could say that we believe in the arc of justice, but that would be a useless statement, because our beliefs, whatever they may be, have no effect on the reality outside our own minds. Even if our beliefs guide our actions in the real world, the effect is weak and indirect. As much as we might like to, we can’t change the world simply by wishing and by thinking. Beliefs may indirectly lead to change, especially when lots of people hold similar beliefs and act in accord with them. But beliefs alone don’t change anything. I’ve had a saying about this for many years: You can believe until you’re blue in the face, but that doesn’t change anything.

But we can make an if-then proposition that I think is sound and reasonable. It’s this: If there is such a thing as the arc of justice, then to stand in its way, inevitably, sooner or later, is to be found wrong. Not only does that mean that one’s thinking was wrong. It also means that, at some point in the future, one will enter into a state of shame for having stood in the way of the arc of justice.

We could cite many examples of this proposition, from Rome to the present. Religion’s track record is especially damning. For example, the largest Christian denomination in America, the Southern Baptist Convention, militantly supported slavery during the 19th Century. During the 20th Century, it supported racial segregation. In 1995, though it took 150 years, it apologized for its history. Even after the apology, some of the meanest people in the country remain in control of the Southern Baptist Convention and still stand in the way of the arc of justice. But at least, as the arc of justice moved on, church people had to admit that they were wrong. It’s because of the arc of justice that we don’t burn people at the stake anymore, or put people like Oscar Wilde in prison, or hang people for stealing a crust of bread, or beat our children.

Over the centuries, moral error after moral error by the church, in spite of its claim to speak for God, shows that the arc of justice — and this should be no surprise — is and always has been more powerful than religion. Not only that, looking toward the future, religion weakens as the arc bends toward justice. The arc bends. To the degree that it is ossified and refuses to bend, religion inevitably breaks. Church people see the decline in church membership as a moral emergency. I see it as moral progress.

As liberals, this is where our confidence can come from, as well as our optimism. It can be the basis of a politics. It’s why I say that the entire spectrum of conservatism, from dishonest both-sides centrism to the neo-Nazis, is wrong, wrong-headed, and causes harm. And for many people, merely to stand in the way of the arc of justice is not enough. They work to reverse moral progress and roll back the clock.

Theodore Parker, a theologian, is sometimes referred to as a heretic. He saw long ago that the church is not an instrument of moral progress. Rather, far more often, it has been the opposite. I can’t take seriously the claim that religion has ever been on the leading edge of the arc of justice. Classical philosophy, if the church had allowed it to evolve rather than repressing it, would have brought far more light to the Dark Ages than the church ever did. The Enlightenment might have come sooner, had there not been so much resistance. It is ideas, and an expanding concept of justice and fairness, that lead the arc of justice toward greater justice.

The Enlightenment, of course, brought a revolution in moral philosophy. Still, for a hundred to two hundred years, utilitarianism was the state of the art in ethics — the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number. There are still utilitarians, but ideas about justice and fairness have expanded. I am among those who see utilitarianism as obsolete after John Rawls’ justice as fairness (1971). The course of the arc of justice in our time, I believe, is best described by John Rawls’ justice as fairness. As Theodore Parker says, our sight, in any era, may reach but little ways. But from what we can see now, the arc of justice is bending in the direction described by John Rawls.

Rawls’ philosophy may be complex and a challenge to read, but its key idea boils down to something simple, and, to most minds, obvious: We cannot justify being unfair to anyone (usually the poor, the stigmatized, and the weak), even if others want to gain (usually wealth and privilege and power) from that unfairness. This idea is steadily being integrated into liberal politics. Meanwhile, the interest of conservative politics in wealth, privilege, and domination increasingly finds so much fairness threatening. Most people have never heard of John Rawls. Still, as though by magic, Rawls’ philosophy is in the Zeitgeist. Conservatives feel it as clearly as liberals feel it, which is why they are in such a panic to resist it. It puts wealth, privilege, and power in a different light, light that is not to conservative liking.

Thomas Piketty caused quite a stir in 2013 with Capital in the Twenty-First Century. His second book, A Brief History of Equality, got less attention. But in this second book Piketty argued that there has been a steady improvement in equality since 1780, and he explains why he is optimistic about future progress. Given that millions have died since 1780 in the struggle against domination, Piketty’s optimism may seem misplaced. But I think he is right, because even when those who crave domination win, they don’t — can’t — win for long. Just ask the enslavers of the 19th Century, or the Nazis of the 20th, or the racists of the Civil Rights era. In a decade or two, ask Putin. Ask Trump, once the courts are done with him.

We have just been through one of those times, when those who work together to block and reverse the arc of justice get the upper hand. This is what happened when, in 2016, Donald Trump was installed in the White House by wealthy elites whose domination is threatened by fairness, aided by “populist” subjects who were all too easy to deceive.

Now the arc of justice is catching up with them. For some, prison. For others, only shame. Still, some of them are so hardened that will never feel any shame for the ugliness of their actions and their ideas. But the children of the future, from what we already can see now from the direction in which the arc of justice bends, will see things differently.

At last, daffodils

iPhone photo. Click here for high resolution version.

The winter seemed long and cold, and February brought no early spring. And yet, for the first time in my 16 years here in the Appalachian foothills, I didn’t see a snowflake all winter. A few days of warmish rain in early February brought up flocks and flocks of tiny red clover sprouts from the seed I spread last fall. But the return of colder weather caused the clover leaves to shrink and wait for the next warm rain before they start growing again.

For months, I didn’t look at the National Weather Service’s long-range forecasts, knowing that they’d forecast nothing but more winter. But just now I took a peek. All the long-range forecasts — 10-day, 14-day, 30-day, and 90-day — are for warmer and wetter than normal. If those forecasts hold, then we should have a beautiful spring here and a good start for the vegetable gardens.

And there’s the fox…

Foxes aren’t uncommon here. But I’m flattered that a fox is now hanging out in my yard. I got my old game camera working again and got a shot of the fox last night. I’ve also seen it on my security camera, and once I’ve seen it from an upstairs window.

During the past 48 hours, the camera caught lots of deer, two happy rabbits that are frequently seen, one possum, one raccoon, and the fox. Three or four wildlife trails lead out of the woods into the yard. There is plenty of cover in the yard, and, even in winter, lots to eat. Some critter, probably the raccoon, has been making little holes while digging for grubs. The fox, no doubt, catches voles. Ten years ago, a fox raised two pups in the woods just behind the house. I would love to have fox puppies in the yard again.

There are coyotes in the woods, but they never come close to any houses. I understand, and it seems plausible, that foxes sometimes stay close to human houses because they’re safer from the coyotes. As for the deer, they’re so well known here that most of them have names. We have bears, but they stay up on the ridge and down in the branch bottom. A year or so a neighbor saw a bobcat down at the footbridge that crosses a branch on my land.

It’s good to live where the wild things live.

Of course Haley won’t drop out

This photo came from Facebook. The sign was posted here in my rural red county, which voted 77 percent for Trump in 2016 and 78 percent in 2020. Apparently someone thinks the sign is funny.

The insanity of the political media herd is on full display this morning after yesterday’s Republican primary in South Carolina, where the vote was 59.8 percent Trump and 39.5 percent Nikki Haley. A headline in the New York Times says, “After South Carolina, Trump’s March to the G.O.P. Nomination Quickens.” Most of the stories this morning wonder why Haley won’t drop out after such a “decisive” win by Trump.

The answer is obvious. It’s a total no-brainer. The reason Nikki Haley won’t drop out is that she knows that Trump is as good as ruined. But for reasons that are cowardly if not intentionally deceptive, the mainstream media won’t say it. Trump’s financial house of cards is soon going to come crashing down because of the half billion dollars he now owes to the state of New York. He is facing prison sentences for state crimes in New York and Georgia, and for federal crimes in a trial in Washington. It’s possible, if the state of New York has to seize Trump’s properties and determine how much equity, if any, he has in his properties, that we’ll find out who owns Trump’s debt. The media keep reporting, as though it’s true, that Trump said in a court filing that he has $400 million in cash. Who could possibly represent that as believable other than our mainstream media?

The New York Times doubles down on its deceit. In “Five Takeaways from Trump’s Big Win Over Nikki Haley in South Carolina,” the Times makes these points: One, “It was a home-state failure for Haley.” Two, “Voters looked past Trump’s legal woes and political missteps.” Three, “To win a Republican primary, you need Republican voters.” (That’s a ridiculous point, because, to win a general election, you need voters who aren’t Republicans.) Four, “Haley isn’t giving up her case that Trump can’t win.” And, five, “All that’s left is the delegate math, and money.”

That’s all that’s left?

It’s irksome for me to believe that the New York Times would print such misdirection. The only reference to Trump’s “legal woes” is that Republicans “looked past” it. I admit that, for the sake of my blood pressure, I did not read every word of every lame story in the mainstream media this morning about the South Carolina primary. In what I did read, though, I didn’t find any reference to the obvious point that the reason Haley won’t quit is that she expects to get the nomination after Trump goes down.

What the political media should have reported this morning is that the Republican Party is divided. Somewhere between 26 percent and 40 percent of Republicans in South Carolina don’t want Trump. Nikki Haley is way head of the other alternatives to Trump. That is a big deal, and it’s only February. Haley’s numbers will grow as the courts take Trump apart. The big question is, how many of those Trump-forever Republicans would turn out to vote for Haley in November, and how many would just stay home to register their rage?

Here in North Carolina, early voting for the March 5 primary started February 15. I monitor the Facebook group of the Republican Party in my county. They are complaining because turnout for early voting is low. I believe that’s because they are increasingly demoralized, and some are having second thoughts about Trump. They’re also at each other’s throats over local issues, mostly related to the schools. (They don’t want any schools to close, but they also don’t want to pay enough taxes to keep them open. Their response to this problem is Trump-style rage and blame, aimed at other Republicans, because Republicans run the county.)

When the results of the North Carolina primary election are known on March 5, we’ll learn a lot from how many Republicans and unaffiliated voters in North Carolina turn against Trump. In North Carolina, registered Democats cannot vote in the Republican primary. Unaffiliated voters get to choose the Democratic ballot, Republican ballot, or Libertarian ballot. There are seven options on the Republican ballot for voting against Trump: Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Asa Hutchinson, Vivek Ramaswamy, Ryan Binkley, Chris Cristie, and “no preference.”

Why do the mainstream media want us deceived? The answer, as I see it, is: Clicks and ratings. There is only one political picture that gets everybody to click, Republicans as well as Democrats. In that picture, Trump is unstoppable, Haley is finished but won’t admit it, the courts are forgotten, Democrats are blind, and the earth is flying out from under President Biden’s feet. The headline at Russia Today is “Trump Crushes Last Republican Rival.” A headline at The Atlantic is “How Donald Trump Became Unbeatable.”

As I see it, there are three important things to keep in mind about our political media. They are not geniuses, they are a herd, and their job security depends on clicks and ratings.



What is it about Alexander that continues to fascinate us? Wasn’t he just another ruthless conquerer? Or did he, in a mere ten years, leave the Mediterranean more civilized than he found it, setting the stage for the classical age, and changing the course of Western culture, by humbling the Persians and elevating the Greeks?

Historical docudramas are not usually of this quality. The drama is excellent. The mysterious English actor Buck Braithwaite was born to play the Alexander role. The scholars are very good.

This is a six-part series that quickly became very popular on Netflix. You can watch the trailer here.

Tom Swift

The end sheets of the 1954 editions

Starting in 1910, books in the Tom Swift series (written for teenagers) have sold more than 30 million copies, according to the Wikipedia article. And yet I don’t recall ever having seen a Tom Swift book in a (used) bookstore until yesterday. My brother had six or eight of the 1954 series, so when I saw the blue denim cover in the store I recognized it immediately as a Tom Swift book.

I also had no idea that the Tom Swift series of books continued until 2019. I can see on eBay that the older books are highly collectible. They’re inexpensive because there are so many copies extant. I’m not sentimental enough about the Tom Swift books to collect them. I read them, I think, when I was a little too young (eleven or twelve), and they didn’t make a great impression on me. Still, they’re classic nerd fiction, and, as the Wikipedia article points out, the books inspired several generations of engineers and scientists.

⬆︎ There actually was never an author named Victor Appleton. That was a pseudonym that the publisher used for multiple authors, some of whom were women. According to Wikipedia, the 1954 series were written by Harriet Adams, who was the daughter of Edward Stratemeyer, who originally conceived the Tom Swift series starting in 1910.

⬇︎ A Danish word we all should know

I love dictionaries, and I always check out dictionaries when shopping through used books. This Danish dictionary, because of its beautiful bright red cover, almost jumped off the shelf into my hands. I know exactly one word of Danish — hygge.

If you hear a Danish person say this word, it will sound like “hooga,” or “hugga.” Thus I have no idea why it is spelled with a “y.” The Danish word hygge is surely related to our English word hug. Webster’s gives the source of the English hug as an Old Norse word, hugga, meaning “soothe.” The Oxford English Dictionary, on the other hand, is wishy-washy. It says that hug appeared in English in the 16th Century but that the origin is unknown. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (Oxford, 1966) seems to agree with Webster’s. It says that hug is probably of Scandinavian origin and also mentions an Old English relative, hyge, meaning mind, heart, or mood.

The OED’s caution notwithstanding, it seems pretty obvious that hygge and hug are related — the sound, as well as the meaning, as well as the geography. But maybe the OED couldn’t find a source to prove it. I don’t know. I hope they’re still arguing about it at Oxford.

I can testify that the Danish are very serious about the concept of hygge. I got to know a lot of Danes because I helped install a Danish publishing system at the San Francisco Chronicle. I’ve also made a couple of trips to Aarhus. Once, in a training session on the Danish publishing system, the Danish instructor spent at least twenty minutes talking about hygge. I suspect that part of his motivation was to explain to workaholic Americans why holidays and private time are so sacred to Danes, especially in winter. Newspaper people are accustomed to working on Christmas day, because daily newspapers don’t take a day off. But Danes on Christmas day, the instructor said, “are home having hygge.” The word conveys physical comfort, as in warmth; and it also conveys emotional comfort, as in family and friends, conviviality, food and drink.

I would assume, since this dictionary was printed in Denmark (in 2002, first edition 1995), that its purpose was to serve as reference for native speakers of Danish who work with English. The sound of Danish is completely incomprehensible to me, but as I browse through the dictionary, I see can see from written Danish that Danish and English have many more cognates than I would have guessed. And though my ear can’t hear the connection, in writing the relationship between German and Danish is pretty obvious.

⬇︎ The Black Dwarf

One of the things that keeps me interested in Sir Walter Scott is the gothic atmosphere. The Black Dwarf is rich with gothic atmosphere — moors and bogs in the dark of night, spectres by moonlight that may or may not be real. Still, this novel has a simple and well worn plot. It’s one of the early Waverley novels, 1817.

My next adventure with Sir Walter Scott is Castle Dangerous, 1831, which was the last of the Waverley novels.