April 28, 2004
Why I Read the Tribune

Back in January, while my hand was immobilized, E. took a spin at cooking for the two of us. This was fun, because he's much more adventurous than I am. One recipe we tried was found in the New York Times for "Hot and Numbing Chicken."

Looks good, sounds easy... except for the Sichuan peppercorns, which we didn't have on hand but figured we could get with a trip to Fox & Obel. Alas, there were none to be found--anywhere. (E. improvised and the recipe turned out OK--maybe he'll tell us how.)

A few weeks later the self-same NYT reported that Sichuan peppercorns are actually illegal (reproduced here, as they are charging for this article in the archives). I wish they'd noted that in the recipe, or identified some possible substitutes. I wanted E. to write a letter and complain about this inconsistency, but he is still miffed at them for not publishing the letter he wrote them two years ago about the forestry service.

Good thing we saved the recipe, because I read today the peppercorns may be available for sale again sometime soon:

Roasting the spice to a temperature of 140 degrees or more for at least 10 minutes destroys any chance the peppercorns are harboring a canker that destroys citrus plants, said Dore M. Mobley, an APHIS spokeswoman.

I note, with some glee, that this is reported in the Chicago paper, while the misleading NYT (apparently) remains blithely unaware.

But not everyone thinks fussing with food is fun. For them, this article: Who's Afraid of Nigella Lawson?

Random find while hunting for references to peppercorns: This guy's fun pix of NYC--the next best thing to being there!

Posted at 07:07 PM
April 27, 2004
Gimme a Beat!

So what is a buffalo stance? No one seems to know, not even the Phrase Finder. It always sounded a mite disreputable to me. But now it's apparently an acceptable headline:

in Bangkok:
Buffalo stance
With a fresh approach that's earned him acclaim in the field, Dr Charan Chantalakhana has made it his life's work to restore the place of the buffalo in Thai rural culture...

In basketball:
Buffalo Stance
...And now the Washington Wizards, in their first major player move under the guidance of director of basketball operations Michael Jordan, are hoping to trade Isaac Austin to the Utah Jazz in a three-cornered deal for Detroit Pistons center Bison Dele and a future first-round draft pick.

In Kansas:
Buffalo Stance
Cats look for turnaround against No. 18 Colorado

And in social commentary:
Buffalo Stance
...Matthew Testa's The Buffalo War looks at a different struggle, the fight over the fate of Montana's (and, to an extent, the nation's) free-ranging bison.

Finally: you know you've arrived when you're a search term here (along with "Blue Buffalo Dogfood" among others).

Like they say, lookin' good is a state of mind.

Posted at 07:30 PM
April 22, 2004
Seen Downtown

Ever feel like you have trouble following directions?

Posted at 08:36 PM
April 21, 2004
Truth, Nonfiction, and Getting All Editorial

Here's a fun party trick: Get some coffee with a friend. Then, after you've left the coffee shop, try to write down word for word what was said, with inflections, gestures, and expressions. Try doing it after two weeks or even two years. Even better, reconstruct a conversation you didn't even hear!

The business of reconstructing conversations is a tricky one. Interestingly, the excerpts I cited yesterday are rife with rebuilt experiences. Much has been made of the author's direct access to the administration, including interviews and various documentation. It's the way they're used in the excerpts I've read thus far (I confess I have not read the book) that makes me uncomfortable.

Of course, who am I to be criticizing this project? Woodward was venerated when I was in school and continues to be venerated by many journalists today. I do think it's a fascinating story and I have no doubt he can back up what he says. However, I don't understand his narrative approach, which makes me ask a lot of questions I was taught to ask in school and continue to ask authors today.

The site provides this guidance on how things were put together:

Many of the direct quotations of dialogue, dates, times and other details of this history come from documents, including personal notes, calendars, chronologies, official and unofficial records, phone transcripts and memos. Where thoughts, judgments or feelings are attributed to participants, they were obtained from the person directly, a colleague with firsthand knowledge or the written record.

Even given that, I just can't see how he's put some of this stuff together. Reconstructing conversations and events is very difficult unless you have tape recordings or complete transcripts. Memos, notes, and calendars probably aren't going to provide a full picture. (Unless everybody in the White House is tape recording everything or taking painstaking notes of every encounter for posterity, in which case it's hard to see how they have much time for doing any actual governing, not to mention reading those briefing books.)

Lots will be written about what the book says, but allow me to dwell for a moment on how it says it.

Everyone paraphrases, usually when the original quote can't be reconstructed or is fragmented or unintelligible, or just for brevity's sake. Here and there the author paraphrases, but the not particularly graceful execution has bizarre results. These snippets from a dinner at Dick Cheney's house sound like they come from surfer dudes.

The war has been awesome, Adelman said.
Cheney said he was confident after Sept. 11 that it would come out okay.

Moreover, how do we know what was said, even in this goofy way? Was he recording his own party? (Can you chew that olive away from the mic, please?)

The choice of quotes and paraphrases in a conversation makes almost no sense and the result reads very strangely. Here's an example:

The president gave his approval but pressed Rumsfeld again. When is my last decision point?

The paraphrase slips oddly into the first person. The response, a direct quote, isn't much better:

"When your people, Mr. President, look people in the eye and tell them you're going."

This sentence sounds impressive, but what does it mean? We never find out.

The process of synthesizing all the material may have led the author to make some shortcuts or assumptions that are never really attributed. Perception is reality in this case:

Powell appeared to harbor a deep-seated anger even though he was getting his way this time.

Who thought Powell harbored anger? One person? Several? The entire room? It makes a difference. Or was the author making this judgement himself--and unless he was there, how did he make it?

The inconsistencies are hard to understand and make for bumpy reading here:

"You understand the consequences," Powell said in a half question. ...

How do we know he said this specific quote in a private meeting with the president? And who remembers his inflection? If the source is Powell himself, it should be specified that this is his recollection. It's told here as if to sound like an actual eyewitness account. So here's the response:

Yeah, I do, the president answered.

Who paraphrases with "yeah"? Most narratives would use paraphrase more gracefully, or use "yes," unless it's a direct quote. The overall effect is the impression of verite, without actual attribution or qualification.

So....how do we know what really happened? I wish the author had been more specific about whose impressions were whose, and whose accounts are being reported. The picture is very blurry and highly subjective, and I feel no wiser than I was before. Given what's at stake, I want to know who said what, or when.

Posted at 06:47 PM
April 20, 2004
Truth and Fiction Redux

Even for a devoted member of the "Anyone But Bush" camp (ABB tank top, anyone?) it's hard to keep up with the literature these days. This is no doubt because I am feverishly reading memoirs of the Clinton administration (George Stephanopoulos, a fun vacation read; Sydney Blumenthal, which defeated me with ponderous and unreadable writing; Madeleine Albright, the best of the bunch so far). It's keeping me so busy I don't have time to read the current crop of political potboilers (Clarke, Woodward et al.) But I can make time to read excerpts of the Woodward book, which appear all week at the Washington Post site. (via Bookslut)

Posted at 07:16 PM
April 19, 2004
Truth and Fiction

One of my favorite rituals is when E. hands over the New Yorker, checkmarked with his "pick hits" of the week. In the April 4 issue (maddeningly, not online, not even in archives) my pick was the profile of author Madeleine L'Engle, author of the much-loved A Wrinkle in Time and Meet the Austins series. I do remember reading most of these books, although they weren't life changers for me, as they were for some quoted in the article. (Read some other reflections here, here, and here.)

The profile starts off with some hagiography but it isn't entirely flattering and it raises some questions about the thin line L'Engle drew between her own life and her fiction. The line was apparently so thin that her children repeatedly say they "hated" some of their mother's books; indeed, her son, described as "the golden child" who's apparently represented a number of times, apparently suffered sufficiently to die young of chronic alcoholism.

We don't really know both sides of the story here, but the issue raised--the implications of depicting real people in fiction--is thought provoking. (The issue also crops up in blog writing, though I daresay without the timeless quality of the L'Engle books.) L'Engle, in the profile, doesn't seem bothered by it and neither the reporter nor the other people interviewed, including her children, have an answer. Nor do I.

Posted at 07:01 PM
April 12, 2004
Write Hear, Write Now

From "Borges in Indiana":
A Student in Front of the Von Lee Theater on Kirkwood Watching Bees Collect Around the Trash Bin There Attracted by the Dried Syrup of Spilled Cola
I told him: Careful. Bees.

Passerbys contemplate this graffiti on the front of the now-shuttered Von Lee Theater in Bloomington.

When I lived in town there were two movie theaters on the main drag downtown. Now, thanks to the local corporate movie monopoly, one is closed and the other has been renovated to become a community theater that occasionally shows old movies.

IMHO, it's a cultural badge of shame for my old hometown, and many people, like this pen-wielding ranter, are still upset. There's no mistaking his point, but alas, he's written on the wrong theater. The Indiana Theater (now Buskirk-Chumley) is right down the street.

Posted at 09:15 PM
April 07, 2004
Really Big Shoe

At last month's garden shoe--er, show.

Posted at 09:06 PM
April 06, 2004
Herons of Love

"It's in the trees! It's coming!"

In Chicago, my closest brushes with wildlife are pigeons, which taunt the cats, and squirrels, which practice acts of destruction on my container garden. In Florida, where I visit once a year, there's wildlife everywhere. On certain roads you can drive down the highway and see exotic-looking birds bathing in the water next to you.

Suburban development being what it is, these sightings are growing increasingly rare as green space makes way for the seemingly inevitable strip malls and WalMarts. On my last visit, I missed those lovely birds, never to be seen where I live.

But we did see some nice herons in the trees on this river cruise in February.

And take my shoes off
And throw them in the lake,
And I'll be two steps on the water.

Posted at 07:24 PM
April 05, 2004
Findlay Breeze

May 2003: Across the street from the Findlay, Ohio, motel where we stayed before my grandmother's funeral was this car lot with a towering inflatable figure. The deck was stacked against us for a number of reasons: the motel was uncomfortable, my dad didn't want to talk to anyone, and we had to eat at Applebees.

In the motel room I was shown a copy of the will and given an envelope with one of her necklaces in it. The envelope, not the will, made her death seem finally real.

That day I ended up sitting in the car for a long time, watching this figure dance silently in the Findlay breeze.

Posted at 07:17 PM
April 03, 2004
Hell Van

Some random acts of photography from the last year are on tap this week. Here's a forgotten classic: The Hell Van, photographed on an Ohio highway in May 2003.

The kind of person who writes on his car must really have a lot to say. The van says "See You In Heaven," (among other things), raising the image of an afterlife full of car-writing religious maniacs--a prospect so depressing it probably prompts safer driving on any road.

Posted at 10:52 AM