Rubber. Glue. And… Sugar.

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One might imagine that with Himself out on medical leave, all kinds of cooking and travel would be taking place. Well, no… medical leave, in this case, means you feel cruddy enough not to go to work and don’t know what the cause is, unfortunately. We’re working through it – and we’re mostly doing well, but sometimes it’s a slog, without a doubt. Still, there has been some experimental foodie-ing going on, because we wouldn’t be us without this aspect of our lives.

People talk about “adulting” in the sense of eating all of the foods in one’s farm box before it goes bad or eating all the produce in one’s fruit bowl before same. These are huge and worthy goals, dear people. We’ve extended our personal goals to really looking critically not just at our consumption, but at our waste, which the U.S. does a lot of – wasting food, that is. People on a budget considering seriously the impact of really using every single bit of a fruit or veg find that they can save a lot of money while expanding their creativity. It’s definitely a challenge. We discovered an entire cookbook for that purpose. It’s gorgeous and full of interesting recipes, but the one which caught our attention the most was… a banana peel cake recipe. Oh, yes – Banana Peel Cake With Brown Sugar Frosting.

NB: If you have a latex allergy, like T’s youngest sister, remember that banana peels contain latex – please, DO NOT EAT THIS CAKE or even try to make it, as boiled or processed banana peels release more latex than fresh.

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Normally, the idea of cooking with something that is limp, brownish, and usually crumpled up and put in the trash would seem problematic, but the cookbook author swears by this recipe, and said it tasted like the best banana bread, ever. Like the majority of West Coast folk, we’re big fans of banana bread, and the idea of a recipe with a controllable amount of sugar and carbohydrate, yet with still a rich banana flavor seemed remarkable – too good to be true.

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Not even going to lie – it kind of was.

This is not to say that it wasn’t a banana bread-shaped thing in the universe of banana breads, but for all of the accolades, etc., the cake itself was kind of …well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The directions state that you need to remove both blossom and stem ends of the peel, then pry out and discard the white strings from the interior of the peel. Next, one is meant to boil the peel, drain it, preserving some of the water aside, and then to puree the peels. All of that was kind of fun, because it was… just so weird to be messing around with peels, which are so very obviously trash. We started the cake on an impulse, after making a morning protein shake — and if you look, our peels are just of normally ripe bananas. Not nearly overripe bananas. The cookbook strongly suggests you use very brown or almost fully covered in speckles peels, as one does when making banana bread.

But – without the gift of hindsight, we went with what we had, impulsively trimmed our peels, and tossed them into a pot. The kitchen smelled of bananas, as it always does when one makes bread, but it was a slightly …different smell. More rich, but also more bitter, and slightly tinged with an almost vanilla edge.

And speaking of vanilla – or spices of any kind – the recipe is utterly lacking in those. And that was a point of contention with our Baker. There are far too many baked goods in the world which don’t include, at minimum, vanilla. It might be argued that bananas are a relative of vanilla, thus not in need of it, but to us a good banana bread typically includes allspice or ginger or cardamom or at the very least, a simple pinch of coriander, or a bit of cinnamon even — anything, just so the bread doesn’t just have the flat, slightly insipid flavor of banana alone. But, no, not this time. The Baker compensated by adding in ground vanilla powder, but since we were trying to actually follow the recipe, we didn’t take it further than that. We probably should have.

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Something – the peel? the latex? – really informed the texture of this cake in both its baked and unbaked form. Baked, it is slightly springy to the touch, but sticky – really sticky, like Scottish Sticky Toffee Pudding stickiness, as if it is made with dates and a sugary syrup. Unbaked, but the batter is thin and unprepossessing. It didn’t really raise much, despite all the leavening, and it sort of came away from the back of a spoon like …well, not even like pancake batter – like a crepe batter. Noting the batter texture, the Baker decided to bake it as a roll cake, which turned out to be the best call.

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Like Sticky Toffee Pudding, this cake might best be served in the British way, with a sticky sauce, and eaten less like a cake and more like a bread pudding. The whipped cream in the center lessened the effect of the general stickiness, and everyone who had some enjoyed it. We …tasted it, and then said… “Meh.”

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Though this was our first exposure to Peel Cake, it’s apparently quite common in, of all places, the magical land of Oz. The Oz – or Aussie – version of Dateline had it on their show way back in 2009 when cookbook author Edna Toledo came on to the show and made it. Her recipe uses far, far more peels and she says you can use orange peels in it, too. (Hm!)

A more recent NZ version has both peels and… avocado frosting, so you can… be… super… green? Or something.

We may have to try this again, because we must have done something wrong. Everyone says this is fluffy and delicious, and it’s hard to compare our ambivalent response to the rapturous descriptions of what is clearly a beloved cake, but… nah. Sure, the cake is okay, but life’s short — too short for cake that isn’t absolutely amazing. Why waste the carbohydrates? We’ll try something else.

Until next cake…

A Threshold in a Liminal-land

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It tells you a bit about the year you’re having if you’ve already run through your health insurance deductible by the second week in January. This won’t make much sense to NHS users overseas, but suffice it to say it’s the two-edged swords of American healthcare, and it means the last few weeks have been a bit pinching on the pocketbook…

So, now is the winter of our discontent… or something like that. It’s at the very least the winter when Himself is taking a break from work, to plumb the depths of his symptoms (chills and sweating, heart racing, fight/flight responses) and determine their cause (medication interaction, physiology, psychology), and straighten them out. In between, we are discovering and rediscovering things we like about where we live. Today, it was Quarry Lakes Park (which we keep calling Crater Lakes Park, which is… apparently elsewhere).

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Quarry Lakes (Regional Recreation Area – whatever) Park is essentially the correction of a mistake – as a quarry is manmade, while a crater is the result of a no-fault, act-of-God large-item-impact. Alameda Creek was the original boundary between Contra Costa and Santa Clara Counties, and in the mid-19th century transcontinental railroad race, railroad prospectors scooped the gravel from the banks of the creek to help form the western end of the line. By the time the railroad was built, there were just vast, unsightly holes in the middle of the countryside, collecting groundwater – which Alameda County (named and organized in 1853) used to top up local aquifers. In the 70’s when the big push came to celebrate the earth and stop making giant holes in things for not very good reasons, the city bought the property back from various business people, between 1975 – 1992.

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Quarry Lakes Park is 350 acres of lakes, and 121 of land and hills surrounding it. At the central lake, the city put in a gravel-and-sand beach, and buoys where in the summer it must be a hoppin’ place for swimmers who don’t mind swimming with geese and egrets and frogs. On other lakes, there are boat launch areas, they seed it with fish for the fishing fiends, and there are tables and shaded pavilions all over. There are several looping semi-paved biking/hiking trails surrounding the biggest of the lakes, and some of the biggest pelicans we’ve ever seen, gliding smug, fat and happy through the mirror-bright water. They leave wakes. Like boats. They land on the surface with the inelegant thump of a heavily loaded 747. (They have cartoonishly short legs, and look like they’re part of an anime from Studio Ghibli.) The ones we saw had bumps on their beaks – because it’s apparently breeding season, and those bumps are the equivalent of a peacock’s tail advertising virility or somesuch. In a few weeks the bumps will be gone, and in a few weeks more, we can look forward to their ugly adorable, spindly-legged offspring.

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Though there are apparently snakes and hares and foxes as well (though we saw no sign of them), this is one of the best areas for bird life that we’ve discovered. T’s remark years ago that photography was a gateway drug to birding has proven true. We saw that there are wood ducks, herons and egrets in the ponds with swallows and red-winged blackbirds in the hills surrounding. We were surprised by the aforementioned GINORMOUS water birds (American pelicans are between ten and seventeen pounds, which is not bad for a creature with hollow bones) and the expected seventeen hundred Canadian geese, Scrub Jays, grebes, and scaups, we chased a pair of Northern Flickers across the parking lot without getting a good picture. That’s definitely going to happen next time. What’s also going to happen is more photography – we realized that in the past eight months or so, we’ve not gotten out as we liked to record our experiences and see the world. Even if we don’t visit any of the other numerous parks in our area, Quarry Lakes is going to keep us happily occupied for some time.

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Half paved paths with manicured lawns, half scrub oaks and dirt-and-gravel trails, this place is so, so big, we almost missed a little corner of it which houses a Showcase Garden, a Master Gardener’s display piece to show off native species and plants which do well in our particular zone. There were herbs and succulents, cacti, roses, and fruit trees. On a cool morning in the spring and summer it will be delightful, but even on a cool and gray winter afternoon, it was gorgeous and smelled fresh and clean. The green was almost surreal, as the sun sliced a bit through a bank of clouds.

It’s hard to describe the effect of an unexpected garden when your hearts are already full from birds and water and a lot of sky. The tiny paths and bright colors were a treat that lifted us out of ourselves all over again.

When you’re feeling a little rattled by circumstances, a walk in the park (or, regional recreation area, fine, whatever) solves …basically nothing. No voice from above, no angel choirs, nothing miraculously solved. What it does do is suffuse blood into your prefrontal cortex (no, seriously). What that does is disrupt repetitive thoughts. What movement does is raise your endorphin level, lower your stress levels, and reduce anxiety. Sure, everything is still a mess – you’re still waiting in the liminal threshold of a change, trying to determine your direction, but for an hour or so, it certainly gets you out of your head. A brief sabbatical from indecision or angst is worth celebrating.

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…and a fat squirrel in an oak tree

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On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… comedy. In the form of volunteering to shop with our nephews.


Christmas this year… well, it happened, but after we put in the requisite time for programs and celebrations, we missed a lot of the spirit of it. Our last concert was the 17th, with lovely brass, bells, and organ, and then we dove into a round of lab visits, specimen samples, and recovery rooms. Swallowing a camera during an endoscopy is, apparently, not something you remember clearly when you wake up, but the photographs of the inside of one’s abdominal caverns is usefully interesting, if not truly illuminating. (“What’s it supposed to look like?!”) Himself has had a lot of trouble eating and keeping food where it’s meant to be, so we’ve been in kind of a quiet blind panic of medical visits. None of the signs of cancer have been found, though, thank you for your concern. We are taking it all very seriously, even if we haven’t been that forthcoming with it in person.

Anyway, by the time the actual holiday arrived, we were exhausted from stress and worry and work nonsense, and so took a day off. We were so grateful for people giving to us – a lovely church service where we didn’t have to do anything but sit and take it in, people sending cards and fun gifts, far too much See’s candy that we didn’t regift, but ATE… And it was Good.

As we recovered, we asked family what we could give them as gifts, and as usual, most of our family said a lot of “Meh,” which is what our family has always done, which is why we tend to get together seriously at Thanksgiving, and spend Christmas a.) avoiding each other, b.) taking long walks, c.) staying in bed, d.)watching movies and e.) arguing about Scrabble points. But, as a mother of growing boys, T’s sister asked for new church clothes for the boys, as protruding wrists and ankles are heralding the newest growth spurts, so T dutifully asked for sizes, and ran into the wall of, “well, that depends on…” and so D said, “Oh, I’ll just take them shopping. Just give me a list, and I’ll take them around and get them a few things.” He also said it’d probably take him an hour.

Theories are great things. But sometimes they don’t take into account, like, reality.

“I have a list, it’ll be quick,” does not take into account the temperaments of a dreamy eleven year old, and a zippy, bounce-around-the-store-because-I-already-tried-it-on-once nine-year old. Theories do not take into account conscientious adults trying to allow children to make decisions, because adults all too often make decisions for children for the sake of expediency (and having the decision made before one expires of old age). There is valuable entertainment to be had in watching expectation collide with reality sometimes. This was one of those times.

D. had already decided to make a whole day policy of not rushing the boys, because there was no true time limit for the shopping day, so he just… waited… while… they… made… up… their… minds. At Jamba Juice. At DSW. At Old Navy.

He regretted this choice. Frequently.

He also regretted that he hadn’t any understanding of shopping for children. The texts came thick and fast: Did you know kids’ jeans don’t have inseam measurements!? How does anyone know what size they wear?” and “I have located a pair of pants, found an empty changing room, tried on a pair of pants, texted you a picture of them, folded them, and returned them to the shelf and that child is still trying one the same shirt How does that one shirt take ten minutes?” and that sort of thing. Those left at home were doing a lot of snickering.

At any rate, the subsequent fashion show went swimmingly, as the boys modeled their new clothing, and the adults sat in various stages of exhaustion in the living room and provided the appropriate drumrolls and applause as the boys emerged from the den. And all went well until we heard older brother say to little brother, “Those aren’t going to fit. You can’t do up the button.”

From the front room, Himself yells, “WHAT!? I had you try on EVERYTHING! How can something not FIT!?”

Ominous silence.

Then, little brother, “Um… Mom…?”

Amid protests from older brother that she’s not “talent” and “only talent is allowed backstage,” T’s sister goes into the den, and lo and behold, a pair of pants doesn’t fit little brother. Which he tried on. And pulled his shirt down over because it wouldn’t button.

Cue myriad exclamations from the adults. “But, why would you do that? You were in a store. You could have just gotten the next size up.”

*Hazel brown eyes blink blank incomprehension*

T asks, “Do you know why you try on clothes at the store?”

Still with the Bambi eyes. “Um… no?”

All eyes turn to Mom, who sighs, and rolls her eyes. “That’s my boy,” she says.

Himself thrusts the receipt into his sister-in-law’s hands. “You’re on your own,” he says. “I don’t do returns.”

Himself says the boys were every bit as good as they could be, and that he’d take them shopping again in a heartbeat… He just needs at least a year’s recovery time. At least.

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On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… wine. SO. MUCH. WINE.

Corporate America continues to reveal its clueless, tone-deaf self in terms of gifts; we have now four (4) bottles of wine D’s been given, plus two T’s eldest sister doesn’t know what to do with. Given the number of D’s Hindu and Muslim coworkers, it is truly astonishing that someone in HR still clings to the idea that Wine is great! Sure, it’s perfectly appropriate; EVERYONE will want this…” but that seems to be the case.

After awkwardly accepting yet another bottle of, what we’ve been assured is some Very Fine Vintage, we’ve been Googling What To Do With Wine pretty thoroughly. White wine lends itself more easily to cooking and to cleaning, but for whatever reason, all of our gifts this year are reds. However, Martha Stewart suggests reds for crock-pot roasts of meat or bean-and-bay leaf stews, or for red cabbage and apples, as well as for simmering a dried fruit compote, with dried cranberries or sour cherries. Once wine reduces, it’s apparently quite sweet. (The good news is that not only does the alcohol dissipate when heated, but the sulfites do, too – so allergy sufferers, rejoice.) We’ve also found recipes for red wine vinegar, chocolate cake, pancake syrup, lentils, jellies, gravies and sauces. D has produced an amazingly good olive rosemary bread with a fine crumb and a hint of garlic – and that all the liquid in the bread was red wine has so far made no discernible difference in flavor – but it might help it keep longer, who knows.

Additionally, wine apparently makes a good skin toner, or you can pour it into a hot bath to soften skin and clear up psoriasis, though we’ll believe that when we see it. It’s allegedly useful for cleaning produce and it makes an amazing fertilizer, apparently. While white wine is known to remove stains, red wine makes a great dye. Will you now please cue a little 90’s era comet blaze across your inner eye, emblazoned with the words, *The More You Know…. Thank you.


And so we conclude: It is not yet New Year’s; somehow, 2018 is still clinging like a viscous film to our brains. We’ll try again at Lunar New Year to see if we feel fresh and at all different in the Year of the Boar. Somehow, we have our doubts. For now, we’ll stick with merely wishing you a Happy Wednesday.

Welcome Thought Police

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I’ve just read this article, about Facebook reporting suicidal people to the police. Think about that article & then think about whether you actually believe that “the ends justify the means.” This is the same logic that says it’s OK to violate your civil rights to keep you safe. In this case, it’s Facebook, and you all know what you signed up for … but this feels a lot like Facebook trying to justify their action (snooping through your activities for something they find problematic), and that tells me that they know they’re in an ethically bad position: they’re misusing their privileged access to your personal information and trying to normalize that misuse of privileged access by providing a post hoc, fallacious argument that appeals to our emotions. This line of argument has the added benefit that it makes you look like a creep if you argue against this, because who wouldn’t want to save suicide attempters from themselves?

In the article, they provide a quote:

“While our efforts are not perfect, we have decided to err on the side of providing people who need help with resources as soon as possible,” Emily Cain, a Facebook spokeswoman, said in a statement.

I would prefer to cut that statement a bit shorter:

“While our efforts are not perfect, we have decided to err,” Emily Cain, a Facebook spokeswoman, said in a statement.

I say this because I do think their actions are quite an error, and I find it particularly worrisome because it is being conducted on such a massive scale, without oversight, and – because of the machine learning aspects of this – it is being conducted in an area in which oversight is quite literally impossible simply because the technology is designed not to include human oversight. Facebook states that they don’t track outcomes of their interventions, so they are not even monitoring this program for effectiveness on a case by case basis (to refine the algorithm even?), nor are they monitoring it for harm. This is, quite literally, an explicit invasion of privacy, inviting law enforcement intervention into people’s lives, with zero oversight.

-D

A Bit Of History & A Little Grain: Spoon Bread

Hello from the other side of the first storms of the season, washing away the stench of smoke and the dust of summertime. Mornings now are frigid and damp, and it’s time for December baking.

Most Californians are familiar with horchata, one of several central-Mexican drinks which both refresh and feed. Horchata is made of ground rice, cinnamon, and sugar in its most basic form. Agua frescas were kind of A Thing back in the day — and instead of a rice-grain drink, central Europeans took water and grain and let it ferment — the addition of that yeast turned it into what historians called liquid bread. It’s interesting how many feed-and-refresh drinks from Mayan times there actually are – an exploratory visit to a tiny Salvadorean pupuseria introduced us recently to atol de elote.

Atol – the Spanish word for kernel – is grated fresh from the elote cob and combined with milk and cinnamon. Sounds a lot like horchata, right? Well, it’s exactly like horchata, in that it is sweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet. So sweet. TOO sweet. We ordered it to go with burritos, and — nope. We were expecting something more like a naturally sweet chowder, and we got more of a milkshake carbfest. So, the little take-out cups sat in the fridge until we had a moment to figure out what to do with them.

And then we thought of spoon bread.

If you’re native Californian, spoon bread probably doesn’t automatically occur to you, either, but folks from the Southern U.S. and the East Coast likely think of it more often. (Like, MUCH more often. Did you know that The Linguistic Atlas survey of the middle Atlantic and Southern states collected over 330 terms for cornbreads? We are slightly out of control with this dish, people. Just SLIGHTLY.)

Historically, the world was first formally introduced to the dish in the 1847 cookbook THE CAROLINA HOUSEWIFE, by Sarah Rutledge, with the idea that the dish had evolved from the Algonquian languages’ names for baked cornmeal, suppone, appone, and apan. Awendaw cornbread, named for an Sewee tribal settlement outside of Charleston, South Carolina, is close-ish as a sibling, and probably what Rutledge referred to, but it’s …mostly unlikely, as traditional spoonbread, with its light, soufflé-style structure, is the furthest thing from plain cooked cornmeal. Still, however we got to it, spoonbread exists, and the now cold and gelatinous cups full of fresh corn and milk (some recipes call for corn starch as well) had a destination.

The idea wasn’t for this to set up properly like a cornbread, which could be cut into squares, nor was it to be a the consistency of a hoecake, which relies on the buttered pan and crisp edges to keep the inside creamy and the outside firm. This was much more dense bread pudding than soufflé — but it worked. Should you want to try it yourself, sans the side-trip to having the atol de elote languishing in your fridge in take-out cups, try this:

West Coast Spoonbread: Lightly whip two eggs with three tablespoons of canola oil, 1 tsp of salt, a teaspoon of baking powder, and a scant teaspoon of soda. Add this to roughly three cups of corn frehly cut from the cob, and a cup of milk – whether coconut milk or sweetened condensed milk or a full-fat dairy is up to you. Add this slurry to 3/4 cup of finely ground polenta meal and 3/4 cup of AP flour. We added 3/4 cup of rye flour for color and nutrients, but you may substitute with AP, white, or white whole wheat as well. We also added an additional cup of frozen corn kernels just because. Pour into a very well oiled container, and bake for 55 minutes. Expect this spoonbread pudding to puff, and then subside.

Corn bread is the easiest thing in the world to vegan-ify, with plant milk and a couple of flax eggs. We often make it this way, but since we had this dairy-milk slurry, it made sense to just add eggs. This spoonbread is dense, slightly sweet, fresh, corn-y, and delicious, but we’ll be tweaking this a bit as we go on!

Happy December baking to you.

Through All The Tumult And The Strife

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My life flows on in endless song,
Above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the clear, though far off hymn
That hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

Glorious Days of Gratitude to You!

Whatever you name it – Turkey Day, Thanksgiving, Friendsgiving – and whatever it means to you, we hope you have a relaxing and gratitude-filled long weekend. Even if it’s nothing more than a kick-off to Christmas shopping for you – truly, enjoy the time.

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We’ve been told our fruitcake production level is approaching “scary,” but truly, we don’t need a bakery, we swear. These little cakes don’t stay at our house, but tend to feed our community, to good effect. People are a little sweeter, in this time of stress and hurry, and that can only be A Good Thing.

This is the time of year to fling ourselves joyfully into the food of other cultures, acknowledging that this addition to our nation is for what we should be truly grateful. Unmired from the colonial mythos of saintly pilgrims and simple savages (neither saints nor savages in true history), we greet pancit, sushi, and tasty pupusas Salvadoreñas as part of this year’s favorite foods – and lately, we’ve discovered the tragically delicious La Michoacana, with their fruit sorbets of every imaginable flavor. We blame, with love, our friends Yadira and Jose-Luis for this tiny addiction.

And now it’s time for the list — privileges, duly checked, and acknowledged with gratitude:

  • The D&T show, which has been renewed for a 25th season next year,
  • Our snug little abode – which suits us perfectly for now,
  • Improving health outcomes – D’s recovered from metabolic freefall to gain a pound or three. Additionally, after only a year of fiddling with medication, T’s autoimmune disorder has stabilized. While health outcomes can change at a moment’s notice, the trick is finding joy in the now in which everything is just fine,
  • Our work – while D’s job is a lot like playing whack-a-mole some days, one can at least say he is never bored, and he is well-known and appreciated by the people in his company. Though work relationships aren’t the “40 years and gold watch” variety anymore, D has the skill to move in and out of companies, leaving friends behind. On T’s side, the sale of two more books with a new imprint, coming with the threat promise of a multi-city book tour is a gift she’s not going to squander,
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  • The joys of artistry – whether (badly) playing piano, (badly) embroidering, (badly) knitting, or baking (which some of us Can Actually Do), singing in our chamber group, or glue-gunning anything that won’t be still, we’ve had many ways to entertain ourselves and create serenity this past year,
  • The coming rains – at last – which should heal our poor state,
  • Is it odd to have an entire line to be grateful for sleep, and finally getting some? No? Good.

Obviously, there’s more – always more. Gratitude for the public servants who arrive at every tragedy – the “helpers” for whom adults tell children to look, and which every adult should strive to be. We can be grateful for small movements toward the restoration of checks-and-balances within our government. We can be grateful for our communities, in their richness and diversity, for the expansion of our families from blood to choice, for dresses with pockets. The paean runs ever on – how can we keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

Remembering

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If you visit Europe, I strongly encourage you to visit churches, and stately homes, and to keep your eyes out for the plaques. For the battle flags, torn to tatters. For the endless procession of names, each kept in its own place of honor, in the corner of a room, or on a memorial outside the village church.

I don’t think that we who have not served can have any sense of how truly devastating war is, and I really don’t think we as Americans can understand how terrible World War I was for Europe. By looking around, though, we can kind of get a sense for things, if we really take the time to contextualize the memorials.

Memorials are local, in the UK, in a way that they are not in the US. Here, war cemeteries tend to be where we encounter war memorials, if we encounter them at all. I remember there’s one in Concord CA, but that I only remarked it after we’d returned – it was simply part of the background, before. I believe there’s one on the waterfront in Vallejo, as well. But these are different to Scottish memorials, in that they’re general memorials. “We remember the men of…” sort of thing, and that’s about it.

The memorials in Scotland were mostly very personal. “In memory of our glorious dead who fell in the great war 1914 – 1919,” followed by a list of 38 names. “Faithful unto death.”

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George’s Square, Glasgow
Cambusbarron Village Church

Some memorials are grand, meant to be the centerpiece, such as the one at the center of George’s Square, in Glasgow. Some stand forth to say, “our village gave dearly,” such as the one in front of the Cambusbarron village church; Cambusbarron was our home village for the last year we were in Scotland, so we got to walk past their monument any time we needed something from the village. Cambusbarron, at the height of its industrial vigor, housed a few thousand people and had a school capacity of 270. Cambusbarron volunteered 200 men to serve in World War 1, 38 of whom have names on the village memorial, as they (and a few others, unintentionally forgotten) never returned.

I don’t think I can really understand living with not only the sheer loss (1/5 of a whole generation of Cambusbarron died). I also don’t think I can possibly understand the trauma of having 1/5 of my generation absent forever, and the remainder of my generation would have seen them die. You see, quite a lot of villages joined up together, and were kept together, particularly in Scotland, where military service is a very … clan-centered activity. You join up with your mates, you join a particular regiment because that’s the regiment your village joins, and you go off to war. And then you spend the rest of your life walking past the ghosts of the dead every day on your way to the market.

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I remember my father becoming emotional about Veteran’s day, and not understanding why, not being able to conceive of why he – a true 1950’s man, for whom crying just didn’t happen – would be overwhelmed with sadness when the mood would hit him and he’d remember those lost in his own experience of war. From what I know, my father was not sent to Korea because he was in the Air National Guard (which wasn’t deployed). He was a pathologist in the Navy during the Vietnam war or shortly thereafter. But I don’t know why he cried, and it’s now too late to ask. Was it for classmates? There must have been lost classmates, considering my father attended Massanutten Military Academy. I simply do not know. And, of course, it’s not something he spoke of, at least not to me.

Veteran’s Day is not a day to celebrate America. It is not a day to celebrate America’s military might. It is not a day to beat the drums of war.

Veteran’s Day is a day to remember that war brings death, trauma, and generations of grief.

-D

The Flu Shot Isn’t About You

From Lafayette BART 3

October, 1918, was a time of the Spanish Flu. Around 50 million people died, with 150 million people catching the flu – so, one in three people who caught it died from it. According to the CDC, “The pandemic was so severe that from 1917 to 1918, life expectancy in the United States fell by about 12 years, to 36.6 years for men and 42.2 years for women.” We find it hard to conceive of the sheer volume of death caused by what we think of as “only the flu.”

When you get a flu shot, you’re acting to prevent the spread of the disease, and to protect other people who may not have access to the flu shot, or who may not tolerate it. You’re protecting people with compromised immune systems, babies, those who are already sick. The flu shot isn’t about you, it’s about protecting the rest of humanity. And, yes, there is research on this as a more effective argument … and I don’t think that changes anything at all.

-D

Wandering thoughts on Altruism

I have been thinking on altruism, and how it plays out within organizations. In particular, I’m thinking about the question which sometimes arises when considering altruism with regards to whether altruism can be selfless or is simply a form of selfishness wherein the individual thinks well of themself for giving of themself and thus actually is being selfish by being giving. Put differently: people question altruism’s emotional component as if enjoying the altruistic act is somehow immoral because of that enjoyment of it.

The reason the question is at all interesting would seem to be because we place moral weight upon selfish versus selfless feelings, and want to frame the discussion in those terms because those terms have moral weight, rather than it being an abstract intellectual interest in the understanding of the nature of the altruistic impulse. It is also narrow in thinking because it disallows both to be true: it is possible to both experience pleasure at thinking well of yourself and to be giving to others from a genuine desire to help them. It would seem that the thinking in this area should be disentangled and should have the moral component removed in order to adequately understand the concept of altruism; likewise, they should be disentangled in order to thoroughly examine the field with regards to its hidden moral component in the form of the questions it asks.

A functioning system of community encourages its individuals to be somewhat altruistic towards one another. This is part of being an individual in a community, at its root. In being raised with in such a community, and encouraged to develop this behavior, one is encouraged to associate that behavior with pleasure of some sort (the behavior is rewarded). So, each member of the community is trained to experience pleasure at performing altruistic acts. It would seem, then, that even the question of whether altruism is selfish or selfless is rather absurd, as the value component of altruism is imposed from an outside system, encouraged by that outside system, and deliberately inflicted upon the psychological makeup of its individuals in order to cause the community to thrive and survive. Considering altruism as an individual concept, thus, ignores entirely the fact that it is both on artificial construct, and is outwardly induced rather than necessarily being intrinsic to the human psychological makeup.

In organizations, when we speak about emotional intelligence, I believe that what we are really speaking about is a set of emotional traits including some degree of fellow-feeling, which may be interpreted to mean altruism. If you consider that fellow feeling necessitates acting positively towards someone else, then fellow-feeling must be viewed as altruism. So, in organizations, just as in other communities, the culture must function to encourage altruistic behavior. In systems and cultures which lack this feature of encouraging altruism, the system or organization is not sustainable over the long term, simply because the cohesiveness and resiliency of the group must surely be determined to some extent by the number and quality of altruistic members. That is not to argue that an organization consisting solely of selfish individuals could not exist, but that such an organization (I imagine) would seem utterly foreign and would not necessarily even be navigable to someone with a functioning set of altruistic impulses.

A problem with accepting the discussion of altruism as having both an intrinsic moral component and an intrinsic motivational component is that the moral component is imposed from outside (Puritans, maybe?) and has driven the discussion in a perverse direction while the motivational component is confounded by both category errors (biology / psychology) and weakness in causal attribution and that there is a confusion with regards to the biology involved. In particular, when one is asking questions about the emotional or sensory aspects of moral judgments and their necessity with regards to how they are attached to moral judgments, one ignores that, firstly, the reward system has been conditioned by the intentional instruction of the community. Secondly, an individual which did not possess such conditioning would be an individual likely unrecognizable as human; at least, within the range of what the majority of society would consider normal, we would not recognize such an individual well enough to predict their behavior as we would other human minds.

I have been thinking about altruism alongside the biological and AI concept of Emergence*, wherein unintelligent components of the system are able to evince what appears to be quite rational and logical thought through the application of simple algorithms. When we look at something like Emergence in the animal kingdom and say, “This is something that is able to make decisions without any conscious thought,” and we clearly see that in nature, why would we assume that human thought is of any different nature? Why would we assume that human thought is of greater complexity than that which is carried out seemingly without consciousness in the animal kingdom? If we fail to consider the biological systems, we are asking questions which do not move the discussion in any meaningful direction. We need to understand ourselves both in terms of biology and in terms of psychology in order to sufficiently understand the motivational components of meta-ethics. If we attempt to explicate these questions without reaching out to adjacent fields as well, we end up where we are now, failing to honestly consider all of the aspects of the problem.

To me, though, the larger problem with disentangling the biological and psychological is that of causation: does the altruistic act cause the feeling of pleasure? We would think so, because we believe that we act based upon motivations and we believe that we understand that motivation, despite experimental evidence indicating that the mind simply makes up stories that seem plausible for explaining the world.

In order to disentangle the biology, though, we need to have a discrete chain of causation in which the biological component doesn’t actually begin the process, else the altruistic act suffers from the same lack of standing as it would have done had it been out of a selfish impulse. This isn’t possible, however, because of the way the simple system functions in that it is often quite impossible to disentangle the direction of causation between feelings and biology. For example, feelings of nausea may be caused by a stomach ailment or may be the result of psychological distress; when both conditions are present, and even considering what the individual would offer as explanatory, the reality is that we are trusting an interpretive system to make sense of systems to which the individual doesn’t pay adequate attention and of which they may not have adequate understanding. Additionally, we seem to be arguing from insufficient evidence when considering individual entities and how those entities feel, and then attempting to generalize from a population making statements about how they feel, when all of those entities are undergoing the same requirement to interpret their own biological systems and provide explanation for what they are experiencing, simultaneously we are trusting that those entities are able to express themselves in coherent manners and have the same access to language with which to express a particular set of emotions or range of emotions and thoughts and feelings.

The problem becomes infinitely more complex when one considers that these actions and emotions are usually considered as happening as discrete events, clearly strung together, when we know that there are feedback systems involved in the biological system which are themselves sending signals and request that actions be taken, all of which signals come together to formulate a gestalt decision made by the biological collective rather than being a decision made by an individual in isolation. And, yes: I did just hint that somewhere there’s an argument that the individual cells of your brain are analogous to a colony of termites. You’re welcome.

Anyway, this is what’s been rambling through my mind today, distilled down from the ideas which sleeted through the universe, landed in my head, and which I spat out into the phone (thank you TTS!) for later. I imagine there are some problems in there with the logic. Please point them out, I’m happy to discuss.

-D

*Emergence has its own epistemic and ontological problems, of course; it would seem that these should be broadened from the narrow field of artificial intelligence into the larger field of systems thinking and also applied to systems and organizations.

Has it really been that long?

I just saw a BBC article go by, about wintry weather in Scotland. Reading through the article, it’s actually showing video of someplace we’ve been in person: to the top of the lift system, in Glencoe. Of course I had to mention this to you all, but then had to find the photos of when we were there, and then to see if we’d blogged anything about it (of course we did). It’s amazing to realize it’s been 3 years since we’ve been back to Scotland.

Aonach Mor 20

-D