Sunday, August 25, 2013

Yer Doin' It Wrong

Alas, the poor we have with us always.

I think we all know it's not a good idea to hand them money in perpetuity.  And surely we've figured out that warehousing them in urban high-rise projects isn't working well at all.

But what to do, what to do?  

If only we had some data to help us figure out what might work better.

Oh, well, look at that.  We do!  Marvin Olasky wrote The Tragedy of American Compassion, back in the '90s, or maybe earlier.

Olasky documents charity in early America.  Churches, civic associations, immigrant societies all reached out to help the destitute in their communities, offering sleeping rooms, jobs, coal, food, God.  They took the view that mankind could be sorely tempted to live off the labor of others; that people down on their luck needed a "hand up" more than a handout.  Some people couldn't help the troubles that befell them, but some could and they should be expected to overcome the habits that kept them down.

Olasky also tells the story of an opposing point of view:  mankind is inherently benevolent and the reason that poor can't stop being poor is because they have never been placed in a situation where they can thrive.  Therefore, we need to provide them housing and a guaranteed income.  To  my surprise, this idea has been around quite a bit longer than Roosevelt's New Deal.  Olasky traces it back to 1840. 

His many facts and figures demonstrate that charity worked well in early America because giver and receiver knew each other.  Giver could better discern the needs of someone in his community, someone with who he had a relationship.  I was amazed--no, fatigued--by accounts of busy volunteers offering rooms in their homes to the destitute, delivering coal, gathering up clothes, patiently preaching a better way to the alcoholic and the fallen woman.  They stayed close enough to the poor to smell them.  They spent their time much more than they spent their money. 

Who knows if they got a little judgmental as they made the call between who deserved help and who didn't.  Maybe they didn't understand mental illness or alcoholism.  But they did an awful lot of good. 

It sounds like all of early America was one big Relief Society.

Heavy on statistics, Tragedy is no beach read.  Would the people I know enjoy this book? I ask myself.  Likely not.  It's more for the specialist, the academic, the politician.  None of you are secretly a United States Senator, are you?  I didn't think so.

So, it's out there if you want it.  I downed it as a big serving of literary vegetables, and I'm none the worse for it, just eager for a big helping of fiction now.

As for vegetables, here is a tolerable way to sneak them into your diet:


1 lb. sweet Italian sausage links
1/2 cup water
2 medium onions, quartered and sliced
2 medium green bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1 medium red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
2 medium zucchini, choppped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 tsp. basil
1/2 tsp. oregano
1/2 cup chicken broth
6 hoagie buns, split (toasted maybe?)

1. Place sausage links in a 10-inch skillet.  Add water and cook, uncovered, over medium-high heat, turning occasionally, until water evaporates, about 10 minutes.  Reduce heat to low and continue cooking, turning occasionally, until sausages are lightly browned, about 5 minutes.

2. Remove sausages to a cutting board; cut diagonally into 1/4-inch slices.  Return to skillet and cook, over medium heat, stirring, 8 to 10 minutes, or until well browned.  Remove to a dish.

3. In same skillet, cook onions over medium heat, stirring occasionally, 4 to 5 minutes, or until limp.  Add red and green peppers and zucchini and cook, stirring occasionally, until zucchini is tender, about 10 minutes.

4. Add browned sausages, garlic, basil, oregano, and broth.  Heat to boiling, reduce heat to low, and simmer 10 minutes.  Serve on buns.  Probably works better open-faced.  Serves 6 @ 355 calories, assuming an 180-calorie bun.

This is what we shared with the missionaries this week.  I deliver our Friday-night leftovers to them for their Saturday meal.  I never know if they like it, if they throw it out, or if they eat the dessert on Friday at midnight and let the rest rot in the fridge.

If they didn't like this one, I wish they would've sent it back.  I fondly remember the zucchini.  That stuff is pretty good, browned in sausage juices and steeped in a tasty broth. 

From 365 Easy One-Dish Meals by Natalie Haughton.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Waiting Room Read

What makes a book memorable?   The jungle mountain setting?  The tragic mis-timing of the lovers?  A handsome leading man with a Scottish brogue?   The hopeless feeling you got when the war ended and the heroine struggled over the washboard, scrubbing the rags of the returning soldiers? 

Maybe it was what was happening in your life when you read it.  Maybe someone you know was in surgery and your good read kept you from going crazy in the waiting room.  Maybe you were stuck in an airport, and a tale about women who trade recipes and gossip helped kill the two hours United just added to your layover.  Maybe you were stuck on a beach (oh darn!) and you remember the character getting into the yellow convertible just as a friendly seagull tiptoed a little too close to your snackbag.

Possibly, you don't remember many details, but you remember that you liked it.  You think all your friends might like it too.

On that note, I'm recommending one of my blasts from the past, Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani, a story in which the heroine's life gets shaken up when she hits age 35.

It was a waiting-room read for me.  Back when Emma was in high school, she visited the IU Dental School where they did a mouthful of dental work on her.    

Part of the dental students' practice was coming out to waiting room in their little paper lab coats and calling the names of their patients.  Some looked shy about doing it, afraid that no one would answer their call.  But when someone did, they practiced their doctor chat, skillfully feigning interest in a repeat patient's vacation, or ailments, or whatever.

Down the row, two old ladies talked loudly about their clubs at church.  "Ours is called Prime Time.  It's for people 55 and up, but I really think the age should be 65.  The 55-year-old ones won't come because they don't want to be old."

It's a miracle I could read anything at all, with so much going on in this place.  But a good-enough story will keep you coming back, in spite of practice doctors and chatty old ladies. 

Since I remember enjoying the book, but don't exactly remember why, I'm calling on Amazon for a little help here.  Publisher's Weekly said: 

Trigiani's story of a middle-aged spinster finding love and a sense of self in a small Virginia coal town is a lot like a cold soda on a hot summer day: light and refreshing, if just a little too sweet. Trigiani, a playwright, filmmaker and former writer for The Cosby Show, has a Southern voice that perfectly embodies her main character, the embattled Ave Maria Mulligan. Ave Maria, who's satisfied if not exactly happy in her role as the town pharmacist, begins questioning her quiet, country life after a posthumous letter from her mother reveals a jarring secret. Ave Maria soon faces a crisis of identity, the advances of a surprising suitor and the threat of her acerbic, money-grubbing Aunt Alice. From the suitor, who points out his brand-new pickup truck during a marriage proposal, to the town temptress, who dispenses romantic advice from her bookmobile, Trigiani brings the story alive with her flexible vocal inventions. Fans of true love stories and happy endings certainly won't be disappointed.

This could be another been-reading-all-day-forgot-about-dinner book, so here's a dish you can throw together pretty fast:

Honey Mustard Chicken

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Waiting for the Axe in the Skyscraper

OK, I haven't exactly finished this one yet, but I'm in that part where the remaining pages are so few, they're thinner than a dinner napkin.  (Virtually speaking.  I'm reading it on Kindle.)    I think that's far enough along to have gotten the drift of Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, don't you?

Ferris's characters work at a Chicago ad agency.  They're living the good life, getting paid an awful lot, which they pour straight into their mortgages out in Naperville.

Then the agency loses business and starts letting people go.   This is a situation where you want to look busy, seeing as how unbusy = expendable.   One character brings his library book, photocopies the entire tome, then sits down to read the pile at his desk, looking very busy indeed as he flips thoughtfully from page to page.  

They meet in one office or another to gossip.  They secretly write screenplays.  They steal one another's office chairs and antidepressants.  If somebody mentions donuts they all roll, like marbles in a box, straight for the break room.

Their female boss "was intimidating, mercurial, unapproachable, fashionable and consummately professional.  She was not a big woman--in fact, she was rather petite--but when we thought of her from home at night, she loomed large."

These smart, overpaid lemmings make for a pretty amusing read as they all await their fate on the increasingly empty fifty-ninth through sixty-second floors of their heart-of-Chicago skyscraper.  At least, it's amusing to me this year.  We've had some years where lay-off humor wasn't the least bit funny.

Some language cow patties, a whole lot of characters to juggle, but I think you'll catch on.

If I wanted to put off work like Ferris's ad-agency crew (and I am way too good at putting off work), I'd make some:

Chocolate Truffle Cookies 

Naturally, you will have to hide these well if you want enough to get you through a week's worth of procrastination.  I could suggest some good hiding spots, but that would be giving away my secrets, wouldn't it? 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Checking Out the Below-Stairs Crowd

You may have read Virginia Woolf, the feminist writer famous for her essay, “A Room of One’s Own.”  According to Wikipedia, Woolf “invented a fictional character, Judith, ‘Shakespeare’s sister,’ to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare’s gifts would have been denied the same opportunities to develop them because of the doors that would have been closed to women.” 

Woolf was born into the British upper classes, all of whom employed a fleet of servants to clean out their fireplaces, run their baths, empty their chamber pots and, of course, cook breakfast, lunch and dinner.  For Woolf, they also made handy characters in her books, not that Woolf portrayed them with lives, families or memories outside of their duties.  

Alison Light’s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants seeks to remedy this oversight.  Light’s grandmother “went into service” as a young girl and expressed nothing but resentment for the experience. But that’s what England expected of its working class girls, especially its orphans. 
Light decided to honor her grandmother by fleshing out Woolf’s servants, hunting down where they came from, how they spent their off-hours (when they got any), how they got passed around among Woolf’s friends and family.  I found the story of Lottie particularly engaging.  

Sometimes Light’s history bogs down with a parade of unfamiliar names.  She assumes readers know Woolf’s writings, as well as how she committed suicide.   But what Light wants to tell us about Woolf is that, for all her ideals about women having some education and leisure to create art, it never occurred to her that the women dusting in the parlor below would get neither.  And she couldn’t do without the women in the parlor below. 

Not many pages into the book, I had flashbacks of my mother and my Young Women teachers praising homemaking’s advantages.  “You can set your own hours.  You’re working for yourself.”     I thought I was hearing, Your husband has to put up with annoying office mates and crushing deadlines.  Aren’t you glad that your days will be far more blissful?   But when you’re sweeping the floor you swept last week as well as the week before, and other people are inventing Hubble telescopes and waffle fries, don’t you think, Nice sell job, Mother/MIA Maid teacher?  

Ah, but in my day, I don’t think she was comparing homemaking to working at the factory or the office.  Light’s book makes me think she was comparing sweeping one’s own floors to scrubbing the mistress’s front hall.  After all, my own mom worked a couple domestic-help gigs in her college years, not to mention getting sent off to help an aunt or two after the arrival of a new baby. That Mom would prefer keeping her own house over keeping someone else's is not hard to guess.   

Light says we’ve gotten more democratized.   If you can afford household help, it sure isn’t the below-stairs live-in staff.  More likely, it’s the Merry Maids who swoop in once a week with their cleaning caddies.  

As for myself, the kitchen floor and the bathroom grout await my attention.  And if I expect Lemon Chicken Tacos  to show up on the dinner table, I’d better be cutting up those chicken cubes myself.