Monthly Archives: October 2014

Return of the Trencher

Silverware is very young. Consider the fork, that since we were a child has been a part of our lives, sitting beside us as we eat, and often used for salads and pieces of meat and even an occasional dessert. The fork is very young. Before the fork was invented, it was spoons and knives and occasionally skewers. Really, food was held in hands, devoured in hands, and put on plats of wood or stone when it was too hot for hands. Naturally, this would be very dangerous to do in a pre-sanitation culture, where the plates and stones and hands have not been washed, ever. Ergo, civilizations that developed safer alternatives to bare, dirty hands would be more likely to raise the next generation of children safely to child-bearing age. Trenchers of some sort have developed independently across many cultures. I’m not talking about the wooden ones, here. I mean, the ones made out of bread upon which food was placed to be both cooked and eaten. The pies and pasties are not only an important culinary development for creating tasty edible sacks of steamed meat and produce, but the modern pie developed out of the idea of a round of bread that is used as a plate. The nobleman eats food off the hard, tough bread, and then hands the bread to the lower classes, who can eat it and presumably taste a little of the sauce inside of the doughy shell.

While eating a burrito, a sandwich, or a samosa – a pop-tart, a hot pocket, a meat pie… This is the grandchild of the trencher in action. Even biscuits and gravy keeps the tradition alive, in its way, by smothering a tasty sauce over hard, day-old biscuits. Every military child remembers S.O.S. on toast.

Consider food and culture, then, constantly iterating. The fork is so young, but has now become so ubiquitous that people in Asia can find it at the occasional restaurant. Some establishments invented a spork to save money by taking the useful qualities of forks and spoons and rendering them useless by shoving them together independent of whether such a thing is functional. (It’s like a spoon with holes, or a fork without true tines: Terrible!) The ebb and flow of time and invention means that tools we take for granted would be alien and difficult to other cultures and times. Handing out chopsticks in the average American classroom would inevitably lead to hilarious results as children encountering something alien for the first time would need to develop their dexterity on the fly, dropping food along the way. Yet, the most persistent culture on earth relies almost exclusively on chopsticks and a very superior large spoon.

In constant flux, then, our diets and traditions that feel so ancient shift and groan and grow. We still eat with our hands, like savages. We still pick up our trenchers, just that we call them burritos or bruschetta. We use forks. We use specialized forks. We find all these gizmoes and gadgets in our kitchens that all do these crazy things. I have a tool in my kitchen that does exactly one thing: It peels and cores apples better than anything ever did before. Everything that is old is new again. The oldest way of cooking food is a staple of summer: barbecue.

Consider the homely, old-fashioned trencher. Saying the word out loud leads to blank stares, mostly. Asking for food on one would often not lead to a successful meal at a restaurant. Handing a trencher to the homeless on the street as alms would likely net a curse, not a blessing. Yet, the DNA of it persists in what we eat and what we do.

Food and culture are inextricably linked. What other species expends so much energy and time communicating to their children what is proper at the “table” if there is a table? Of all that we do, this unites us with all our ancestors: We gather together to eat. We often do not know why it is rude to put elbows on the table, but it is. We do not know why we should use forks for one thing and not our hands. We do not know why we shouldn’t use our thumbs to push the peas onto the spoon, but we do and we recreate this message onto our children, indoctrinating them into culture and place. Father sits at the “head” of the table, mostly. In formal dining situations, we pause and give thanks. We are, all of us, positioning ourselves at the table. Some of us gather around a television and include the one-eyed monster in our household as a full member.

Consider the trencher. A humble slab of bread that kept the food from falling into the fire, and kept our hands mostly free of our food, which was probably cleaner than our hands, has come back to us over and over. The idea behind it reiterating in new forms. Call it pizza, if there are tomatoes on it, and cheese. Call it quiche if there are eggs. All of them are trenchers.

This is what I think about when I think about culture. A simple foundation is discovered, and it iterates, iterates, iterates, through so many different ideas and shapes, all inspired by a simple innovation. Soon, all of these new things both compete with each other, and become the simple foundation of new things. Ideas are in motion. Culture moves. Society moves. Yet, there are still trenchers. The cultural dna – the idea, itself – retains a place, foundational and omnipresent.

This is what I think about when I think about books, too. There are books that just hang in the background, present even when not explicitly present – Biblican stories, myths, allegories and anachronisms. St. George and the Dragon, Genesis, Sheherazade, Buddha, Genji, Baghavad…

This is what I think about when I think about technology. There is the idea of communication over long distances. Writing is invented. Words are written down. Now there are electrons shooting over optic fibre cable networks, all doing the same work of wax tablets, and of the oral messengers before them. The cables, themselves, become foundational and shift and iterate into new ways.

The tree grows, throwing off branches. Each branch throws off branches. We worry and fret over our tiny twigs, and we do not see the trunk back there, growing thick as mountains.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I was eating a burrito and it spilled open and there was a trencher before me, and I recognized it. I hadn’t even realized what was happening until it was there, before me, the bones of the past habits tumbling into new forms. The trencher always returns. Things like that always do.

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Eat Better: Gluten Free Hot Fudge Brownie Bottom Cheesecake – courtesy of Angela McDermott

Hot Fudge Brownie Bottom Cheesecake

a gluten free recipe by Angela McDermott

Adapted from Fork vs Spoon’s Hot Fudge Cheesecake w/ Brownie Crust, Bon Appetit’s Brownie Bottom Lemon Cheesecake and Nourishing Meals’ Chocolate Pumpkin Seed Flour Cake

Equipment

10” Springform pan

Large roasting pan, 2” deep

Stand or hand mixer

Spatula

Large bowl

Medium bowl

Small sauce pan

Whisk

Measuring spoons

Measuring cups

Parchment paper

Kitchen shears or scissors

Timer

Oven

Pencil

 

Ingredients

 

Brownie bottom:

1 ½ cups Pumpkin seed flour

½ cup coconut flour

¼ cup tapioca flour/starch

¾ cup cocoa powder

1 tsp baking powder

¼- ½ tsp salt

3 large eggs, room temperature

2/3 cup cane sugar or brown sugar

1/3 cup butter, cut into chunks, room temperature

1 cup coffee, warm

¼ cup heavy cream

4 oz semi-sweet chocolate

2 tsp vanilla

2 tsp coffee liquer

 

Cheesecake:

(5) 8 oz packages cream cheese, room temperature

1 cup sugar

4 tsp blood orange liqueur

1 tsp vanilla

5 large eggs, room temperature

2 large egg yolks

½ cup sour cream

¼ cup whipping cream

2 Tbsp coconut flour

 

Hot Fudge Sauce:

2/3 cup heavy cream

½ cup raw honey

1/3 cup can sugar

¼- 1/2 tsp salt

3 oz semi-sweet chocolate

3 oz grated cacao or ground/powdered cacao (I used Grenadian cacao)

2 Tbsp unsalted butter

1 tsp vanilla

1 Tbsp blood orange liqueur

 

Directions:

Separate springform pan bottom from the ring. Tear off a piece of parchment large enough to trace the bottom of pan. The parchment circle should fit the inside of the bottom of the pan. Cut out, put aside. Tear off another piece of parchment long enough to fit on the inside of the ring of the springform pan. Cut in half, the parchment strips should stand 1”-2” above the top of the ring, put aside. The parchment paper will help keep the cheesecake and brownie from sticking to the sides of the pan and later ensure the cheesecake layer will puff up and bake evenly in the oven without overflowing. Fit the bottom and ring of the pan together. Grease the inside of the pan with butter or cooking spray. Fit the parchment paper circle and strips in the pan. Set aside.

 

Brownie Bottom:

Preheat oven to 350*F. Place small sauce pan on stove. Put coffee and semi-sweet chocolate in the pan, put on medium heat. Stir occasionally until chocolate melts, 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat, keep warm.  In a large bowl combine dry ingredients. Whisk ingredients until combined. In a medium, bowl whisk together eggs and sugar. Add butter. Add warm coffee a little at a time. Whisk until butter melts. Add heavy cream, vanilla and coffee liqueur. Whisk until all ingredients are combined. Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients. Use a spatula to stir ingredients together, make sure there are no lumps. Pour batter into prepared pan. Smooth top. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on a rack for 20 minutes.

 

Cheesecake:

Preheat oven to 315*F.

Using a stand or hand mixer, cream the cream cheese on medium speed until smooth. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add sugar, flour, liqueur and vanilla. Mix on medium speed until smooth. Scrape down sides and bottom of the bowl, cream until smooth. Put mixer on low speed. Add eggs and yolks one at a time, beating until incorporated after each addition. Add sour cream and whipping cream, mix until incorporated.

 

Place springform pan in a large roasting pan. Pour cheesecake mixture into the springform pan over the brownie, smooth the top. Place cheesecake and roasting pan in the middle of the oven. Fill the roasting pan with water (creating a water bath) taking care not to splash any water onto your cheesecake, making sure at least 1” of the springform pan is submerged in water.  While baking, the cheesecake should puff up in the oven reaching the top of the parchment paper. Bake for 1hour 20 minutes or until the top of the cheesecake is golden brown, the edges are set and the middle still giggles. Turn off oven.  Keep cheesecake in the water bath in the warm oven to cool with the door propped open for 15 minutes. Remove cheesecake and water bath from the oven. Place on the stove and leave the cheesecake in the water bath to cool for an additional 20 minutes. Once springform pan is cool to touch remove from the water bath and cool on a rack for 20 minutes. The cheesecake should shrink and come away from the sides of the pan once cooled. Refrigerate, uncovered, for 12-24 hours for cheesecake to set.

 

Hot Fudge Sauce:

Makes 2- 2 ½  cups

In a small sauce pot, combine heavy cream, honey, sugar, salt, semi-sweet chocolate and cacao. Stir to combine. Place pot on medium heat. Stir ingredients until chocolate melts. Keep stirring as mixture comes to a boil, about 15-20 minutes. Decrease heat to low stirring frequently on a low boil for 5 minutes. The sauce should begin to thicken and coat the spoon. Remove from heat. Stir in butter, vanilla and orange liqueur. Stir until butter melts and is incorporated. Sauce should be cool, but pourable before storing.  Separate sauce into two glass pint jars, you will need about ¾ pint jar of sauce for topping cheesecake. Store the sauce in a glass container in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks.

 

Reheat before serving sauce.  **Caution–Container will be hot when reheating. Use caution when handling the glass container. **

Microwave: 30 seconds on high. Stir. 30 seconds more. Stir to remove any lumps. Serve.

Oven: Place in warm oven 150*F for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and stir. Place back in oven for an additional 3 minutes. Remove from oven and stir to remove any lumps. Serve.

Stovetop: Place a small sauce pan on stove with 2-3 inches of water. Let water come to a boil. Turn off heat. Place glass container with sauce in the pan. Leave in water bath for 5 minutes. Stir to remove any lumps. Leave standing for an additional 2-3 minutes or until sauce reaches desired consistency. Stir to remove any lumps. Remove container from water bath with potholder. Serve

 

Assembly:

Once cheesecake is set, remove cheesecake and sauce from the refrigerator. Reheat sauce. Run an offset spatula or knife between the cheesecake and parchment paper to loosen it, making it easier to remove the cheesecake from the pan. Remove the ring and parchment strips from around the cheesecake. Parchment should come away easily from the cheesecake. Loosen cheesecake bottom from parchment with large offset spatula and place on a platter or place springform pan bottom on a platter. Take warm sauce and drizzle over the top until covered.  Using a spatula, smooth the top and some sauce let drip down the sides of the cheesecake. Reserve any remaining sauce to garnish individual plates when serving. To slice place a knife in hot water for a few minutes, wipe the knife dry then slice into cheesecake. Place knife in hot water between slices and dry knife before making each cut. Keeps for 4-5 days uncovered in the refrigerator.

To freeze: Cut cheesecake into slices. Place uncovered slices on a sheet pan that will fit into your freezer. Leave in your freezer for 6-24 hours or until frozen solid. Remove frozen slices from freezer. Wrap individual slices in cling wrap, parchment or wax paper and place in an air tight container in your freezer. Keeps for 2-3 months. To defrost: Remove slices from freezer place in refrigerator for 12-24 hours or microwave for 30 seconds increments until cheesecake begins to soften.

pictures:

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Corrupted Leaders, and Revolutions

In Texas, the Republican Party, with their staunchly anti-woman and anti-democrat policies, is so deeply entrenched that it’s hard to imagine that within my own lifetime, one of our memorable and popular governors was a democratic woman, Ann Richards. In fact, the Republican Party, itself, is not recognizable currently to what it was when I was a younger man. It has been said before, by others, but the politics of Reagan would have been far too liberal for the current crop of GOP hopefuls. Their power base, at least in the districts where they have been gerrymandered into power, has only exacerbated the worst impulses over time of those gerrymandered districts. Democracy in the modern times is constructed on the concept of bloodless, constant revolution. Political power structures shift around every few years, and reinvent themselves in new ways to meet the demands of a very demanding voting public.

Let us step away from the idea of modern politics and look at this in a larger view. Among historians, there is the notion that political power finds a balance between stability and corruption. On the one hand, the revolution is bloody and people get hurt and no one knows what will come of it; ergo, leave the devils in charge for now. On the other hand, the corruption is hideous, the powerful take too much, and opportunity and individuals are stifled by the tax of corruption upon them. In this, the violence of the revolution is almost directly proportional to the level of corruption.The French Revolution really started with the words After me, the deluge. The words Let them eat cake were not the instigator, but the avalanche getting a nice, hard push. In Russia and China, the deep, generational corruption swung from the decadent emperors to the stark, collective, peasant communism. In all three nations, revolutions begat revolutions, and once political authority stabilized, corruption crept in. The powerful became the decadent, despite all public appearances to the contrary. The longer anyone or anything remains in power, the more corrupt they become. Bribes, political favors, the forgiveness of sins, and all the wicked markers of corruption accumulate and snowball until power breaks itself in its own corruption.

In Democracy, the revolution is supposed to be bloodless. We vote them out. Currently, with the gerrymandering of districts into segregated districts, a political party has to strongly alienate its base to lose power, at a national level. Local failures will happen, and have happened, but they do not lead to the gross failure of a political entity nationally. Instead, the national level quietly continues the sort of political shenanigans and contempt for transparency that feeds into the failure of our state to function. For example, when the bailout came at the brink of collapse due to toxic mortgages, it was more politically expedient to bail out the banks instead of the homeowners. One would think that politicians would be more popular among their constituents by paying off all their mortgages and bad debts in one fell swoop. Alas, that would have been toxic to the political elite. It is symptomatic of where their actual power base happens to be. With strict gerrymandering, anyone with a pulse and the support of the national party can come to office in any particular district. The cost of campaigning is high, and the money is distributed by the political party for the particular candidate the party selects. Ergo, political power comes from the money. Ergo, the banks who provide those political moneys get the bailouts while the people get locked out of their homes and castigated for a failure to read fine print in contracts that are pages long, issued by entities with oceans of lawyers and enough money to fight anything a long time.

The student loan bubble is coming, soon. Again, it would seem obvious that the most politically-expedient thing to do in a democracy with elected officials is to pay for people’s college education. Instead, the money is loaned out for tuition to these colleges, which resemble less and less the institutions of higher learning that they are intended to be, and have become, instead, a sort of educational summer camp – a home away from home for all the things high school failed to instruct us, with all the amenities that we would want in a summer camp. If the cost is going to be so high, and we will be paying for our camp experience for so many years, it makes sense, then, that for a while we should live like the kings and queens of summer. We’re going to pay out the nose for it, whether we have lazy rivers or not.

Where does all the tuition money go? Presidents are paid in the mid-to-high six figures while adjuncts live on food stamps and hear, constantly, that there is no money in the budget for more full-time staff. Administrations have become so bloated that there is now a graduate degree specializing in academic administration, because the culture has become so deeply-entrenched and obscure from the rest of the administrative world. Advising has become a cottage industry in a world where the things students study, and the things they do in life, have separated so far from the original idea of what it meant to go to college.

College was never meant to be a job-training trudge with a direct correlation between degrees and work. It was meant to be a life training of how to be a grown-up human, with an interior life and the ability to set and achieve goals. It was meant to be the summer camp experience, where the mind and body converge into an educational community, that seeks knowledge, truth, and the right way of living. The notion of job-training in college, in fact, has driven the culture away from the original mission, and into the control of the elite power structures of the world, where captains of industry and politics step in as presidents of colleges, push the organization towards a more-perfect world for their interests. In this, they are pushing the summer camp experience, building rock climbing walls and gymnasiums and lazy rivers and juice bars and all the amenities that drive students to choose one institution over another when the student is seventeen and inexperienced about the way these things actually work. They push them through college, then, with lots of digital access all over campus, and lots of advisers pushing them along, holding their hands, guiding them gently through the harsh waters of higher learning. Professors are weakened. Grades are inflated. Adjuncts are powerless against the pressure of student evaluations. The students, themselves, are not turned into skeptical truth-seekers, for the most part. They are in job training, and learning to network, and building their peer community, only. It is summer camp, and the classroom is becoming the least-important part of the experience. One can already easily purchase papers, hire tutors, and coast through with reasonably good grades for merely showing up and turning in adequate assignments.

This has become the training ground of the indifferent public that will become voting blocs in segregated neighborhoods. The debts they experience as students will train them for mortgages even before they buy houses. They will learn that debt is good, and debt is how big purchases are made. They will learn that their credit rating is one of the most important things about their life.

These tiny influences do not individually hold up in court as evidentiary proof. That is the nature of corruption. It is the tiniest of tiny things, the butterfly fluttering its wings to cause the avalanche down the way. The gentle push of insidious influence creates a momentum that can build over time as long as no one notices it happening. Until such a time comes, when everyone notices suddenly that the idea, itself, of an institution in our society has long ago lost its meaning, and we’ve been dancing along past the music’s fade out.

Power corrupts everything. The powerful interests corrupt the traditional hotbed of revolutions in the academy, where young men once died at barricades with some noteworthy regularity. The way to prevent this powerful urge towards revolution? Debt hangs from their necks. Advisers who answer to business leaders through their business-leader presidents push against weakened academics to turn the college into a factory of blind workers. Little boxes made of ticky-tacky, and they all look the same.

Where is the revolution? When will it come?

Prediction: When the revolution comes in politics, it will also come to academia.

Prediction: When the revolution comes to academia, it will involve the student loan debt bubble.

Prediction: Political corruption will show itself by who it saves when the troubled times come. There is always a choice of where to throw the life raft in the flood. There is no way to save everyone. When the least-logical and least-simple salvation occurs, it is a symptom of the corruption.

Prediction: Democracy is not the end game of human political organization that we seem to think that it is. There will be another revolution. There will be many more to come. May they be bloodless. May they be swift.

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All the Roads are Haunted

I wrote a thing for a site called GrumpTroll.

I don’t think we have anything else up there, yet. Presumably, we will be doing weekly stuff?

Anyway… It’s a bit of a rehash of ideas from previous blogposts that were the firstdrafteryfodder of some longer stuff.

https://grumptroll.wordpress.com/2014/10/04/all-the-roads-are-haunted/

We’ve all seen the little crosses and corsages left standing, undisturbed, along the highways and byways of the world. One of the great miseries and mysteries of humanity is the automobile. We climb into our little, mobile living pods, and rev powerful engines, take to the roads for absolutely everything. We go to the store, go to work, take our kids our school – everything, everything – driving – driving – driving. Car sales are up. Warren Buffet is buying car dealerships. The planet is choking on our exhaust fumes, and we’re driving, driving, driving. In all the talk of the dangers of socialized health insurance, and the mandate to maintain health insurance, the little niggling tidbit underneath the headline was the necessary distinction between car insurance and human insurance. Apparently, cars are a luxury, not a necessity. I challenge anyone to live in any city in America west of the New England states without an automobile. Have fun on those 3 hour bus rides, those endless, endless bus rides that swallow every waking moment between work and home into a commute. No, my friend, we all need cars, too. We all need private insurance for our cars. It would be cheaper and safer if there was universal car insurance, but no one wishes to even have that discussion when the idea of socialized medicine is apparently too contentious for polite society. It would also be cheaper and safer to reconsider how we build our cities.

continue?

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One of the nice things about art versus firefighting or plumbing…

The consequences for failure – in this case a failed kickstarter – is very slight. No one died. No one lost anything.

The book still comes out, except without pre-orders and without bonus extras, in December/January.

Thanks to everyone who pitched in a little. I love you all, and I am very grateful to know that you’re out there and you have my back.

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All The Roads are Haunted

Driving and Dying Every Day

We’ve all seen the little crosses and corsages left standing, undisturbed, along the highways and byways of the world. One of the great miseries and mysteries of humanity is the automobile. We climb into our little, mobile living pods, and rev powerful engines, take to the roads for absolutely everything. We go to the store, go to work, take our kids our school – everything, everything – driving – driving – driving. Car sales are up. Warren Buffet is buying car dealerships. The planet is choking on our exhaust fumes, and we’re driving, driving, driving. In all the talk of the dangers of socialized health insurance, and the mandate to maintain health insurance, the little niggling tidbit underneath the headline was the necessary distinction between car insurance and human insurance. Apparently, cars are a luxury, not a necessity. I challenge anyone to live in any city in America west of the New England states without an automobile. Have fun on those 3 hour bus rides, those endless, endless bus rides that swallow every waking moment between work and home into a commute. No, my friend, we all need cars, too. We all need private insurance for our cars. It would be cheaper and safer if there was universal car insurance, but no one wishes to even have that discussion when the idea of socialized medicine is apparently too contentious for polite society. It would also be cheaper and safer to reconsider how we build our cities.

Death rides on these roads, with us. “Worldwide, an estimated 1.2 million people are killed in road crashes each year and as many as 50 million are injured. Projections indicate that these figures will increase by about 65% over the next 20 years unless there is new commitment to prevention.” (WHO World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention) If a disease was killing 1.2 million people, annually, and critically-injuring 50 million a year, it would be an epidemic with a charity foundation or two, and countless hours of research into the solution for the deadly illness. Instead, design, itself, is responsible for our condition, and we intentionally design towards the goal of cars, wrapping our new communities around roads designed for them, and bending old communities until automobiles will fit. We pay a price for this, in blood.

A school bus driver was recently arrested in San Antonio for fleeing the scene of a deadly accident that he had caused. He pulled out in traffic, and an 18-wheeler had to swerve to avoid hitting the bus. Instead, the semi slammed head-on into another vehicle, instantly killing the man inside. At around 6:00 am, the dead man was likely on his way to work. At that hour, it is unclear if there were children in the bus to witness the accident. Presumably, the children would get on later, and the driver, with adrenaline and shaking hands after his near-miss, would have pretended nothing happened. Just another day, and there was a crazy accident, and now the kids are off to school. A softball team was in a bus accident, and members of the team died so young, with so much unfulfilled promise. Drunk drivers kill someone daily, and keep killing. Texting and driving kills. Don’t drive distracted.

In the Netherlands, a town proposed a novel solution to promote safe driving. They took down every road sign – every single one. There are no speed limits, no huge glaring retail signs, and no road markers. Everyone is expected to figure out stop signs for themselves. Everyone is expected to be responsible for each other, and drive responsibly. The jury is still out on the long-term impact of this system. The people are certainly skeptical. The idea is to make the roads more dangerous, ergo everyone must slow down and make eye contact and try to engage with what’s happening instead of just relying on right of way. In theory, it makes sense, but it is hard to be the town where the testing occurs. It is hard to watch kids walk to school in the town that will be trying something new wherein the roads are made less safe on purpose to increase awareness, which will – somehow – magically produce safer roads.

When do we stop blaming drivers and start blaming roads, as a concept, and the cars themselves? At what point do we admit that the system of highways and intersections that slice up our streets are also a cut into flesh, where we prefer the convenience to the many over the lives of the few.

People love their cars

Horses are dangerous, too. Horse manure was such an inundating force in the ancient world that whole systems of agriculture depended on the constant input of horse manure as fertilizer, which was only recently replaced by the artificial nitrogen fertilizers that have steadily increased with the spread of modern agricultural techniques.  As a replacement for horses, cars have much to recommend them. They are faster, stronger, poop in a manner that requires no individual human energy to clean up, do not have brains and wills that can cause pain, and can be constantly re-engineered for safety feature after safety feature. People are trained to see their car as an extension of their self. They are designed to have faces where the headlights, bumper and grill combine to form something resembling an abstract face. Some of them even look like stormtrooper helmets. We are fed advertisement after advertisement, and see them as a status symbol. The care that we drive will change the perception of us. Driving the wrong car in the wrong neighborhood sends a message that we don’t belong and the cops will pull us over. A beat-up, used car in a nice neighborhood is a magnet for police inspection. A fancy, gussied-up foreign machine in a poor neighborhood is the same sort of draw in the poorer neighborhoods. We are what we drive. And, we should be careful to pour so much of our sense of identity into any inanimate object.

Loving our car is loving one’s image of ourselves in the car, loving the thing that the car says about  us. Cars don’t speak, though. Cars just drive. They have no soul, no heart, and no stake in the world. Pumping them up with computers and artificial intelligence is only going to make them less human, more artificial. They will no longer be extensions of our living spaces; they will become their own proprietary space within which we are only a visitor. They will burn fuel of one sort or another with the indifference with which aphids devour weak plants.

They came from somewhere, too. A mountain was ripped open, naked rock exposed to air and all life stripped away to get to minerals below. The oil was pumped up from the ocean floor, where delicate habitats are damaged over plastic and machine parts that will be made from the oil. The metals were smelted – even electric cars will have metal parts that are smelted – and there will be smoke and fire and heat. There will be rare earth minerals in batteries that will be toxic for a thousand years after the car has moved beyond useful life. When the car is done, what happens to it? Where will it go? Some junkyard will lay it out for parts; some shipyard will move mangled pieces of metal to scrapyards and scrap metal buyers and all the world will make large vehicles to move the dead vehicles into facilities that can reuse the materials for new vehicles, someday. Repurpose the dead. Tear it apart and rebuild.

Love these cars, and pour into them. They do not love back.

Asleep at the Wheel in Urban Planning

There’s this scene in the documentary about the renowned architect Louis Kahn, talking about his failure to influence the redesign of downtown Philadelphia. He envisioned a space more like the great European cities, where people leave their cars in parking garages outside the downtown areas and spend much of their time on foot. He was shouted down. Today, in south Philly, people will triple park, park in the median, park anywhere they can. People will squeeze their cars into every crack and crevice. It was too hard to imagine a world where every street isn’t lined with cars, where every road cannot be used for pedestrian traffic, and there will be no more stickball in the street for the kids, who must stay off the street lest they die.

Our urban spaces have become incredibly dangerous for children as a result, in part, of our obsession with cars. Horses aren’t particularly safe around free-roaming kids, nor is the stench and wanton phage of pounds of manure particularly wholesome for children, but not everyone had horses. Most people walked or found alternative transport to their desired destination. City blocks used to be more like a tiny village, as they are still in parts of New York, all over the country like New York, with all these wonderful neighborhoods united in bowling leagues and churches and festivals. There are so many pieces to blame; alienation in our communities does come from cars, at least for some part. The suburban communities have become the places go to get away from their family and old neighborhood, not the place to reunite on the other side of the stress and urban decay. We separate, because our cars give us the freedom to drive out past the highway, past the old neighborhood, and out farther and farther away, commuting in to work, so our kids can go to school somewhere they can walk and be safe. It is ironic that we use the very thing that most makes our streets unsafe for children to make possible a living situation that we choose to make our lives safer with out children.

Urban planning has so embraced automobiles that suburban enclaves are designed with them in mind. Dead end streets funnel out to winding arteries that connect with thoroughfares that connect with highways. Everything is connected by a road. Even where there are no sidewalks, there are roads. Carving through the canyons of our inner cities, there are roads like rivers that flood in steel twice a day, and sometimes three times, when the flood of commuters strikes. Even when we imagine our public transportation, it is mostly buses, which are just like cars except larger and they make more stops. Trains are passe. Streetcars are quaint and really only for tourist districts. There is no other form of public transportation, really. No one has bothered to imagine or design anything, because people love their cars. With love comes a failure of the imagination to see beyond the limitations of the beloved. This infatuation extends long into old age when the independence of being able to drive is taken too far by our aging neighbors, and dangerous drivers with slow reaction-times roam through our communities with far more regularity than drunk drivers, who are generally only operating in certain times of day.

There is No Backup Plan

Any time a system that is vital to the safety and well-being of the community can fail without a backup, that system is just not robust. In Atlanta, the roads failed. A simple ice storm arrived, and about half an inch of ice on the road became so crippling that people were stranded across the city, abandoned their cars and ditches and found temporary shelter in the aisles of shops and restaurants along the way home, because that tiny sliver of ice upon the road was too much. And, the back up plan involved shoe leather, and walking. For folks on one side of town, who commuted to the other, there was this moment, sitting in their car, where they had to decide to leave their car and try to find help in the storm. There was this second moment, where they were huddled into a fast food restaurant or big box store, and they had to decide whether they wanted to try to make it home on foot. Fourteen miles isn’t a moment in a car, but for an old man in an office building, it’s a two day trek into the unknown.

There was no backup plan if the roads failed.

The trains don’t run through enough neighborhoods, with enough stops. There are no bike paths or linear parks that carve a pedestrian-friendly as-the-crow-flies loop through the city. There is no other way to get from point A to point B if the roads fail.

Roads fail all the time. They put metal sheets over the broken places and put the pot holes on the list. The bridges are falling apart and need to be rebuilt. There are whole communities that will be cut off, soon, and their land will be deemed worthless without better infrastructure to reach it. If the bridges fail, what, then? If the roads collapse, what then?

Our cities and society are built upon too many things that are assumed to be eternal constants, eternal public goods. For all that the highway system did to connect our communities and open up America and the world, there are no bike trails, no new train cars, no new horse trails and kayak lines and canals. There is only the road, and always the road, and forever and ever amen.

The first road, as we know it, built expressly for automobiles, was built in 1938. (http://www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com/worlds-first-automobile-only-road-is-now-a-bike-path/) There are people alive today who remember living in communities without cars. The roundabouts, that today are something of an annoyance in our straight ahead cars, with our traffic lights and four-way intersections, were ubiquitous, then, for the ease of the carriages that could not turn on a dime at the time. Many of our older communities, like Atlanta, have absurd roadways, weaving in and out of old footpaths and cowpaths, all swirling around and impossible, a network of roads so dense and obtuse that maps are required, or massive reconfiguration on par with what New York did to create the blocked and perfect boulevards and avenues.

In the Future, We Won’t Even Drive

One time, before I had a GPS on my phone, like we all do, now, I got lost north of Atlanta. I had to stop and ask for directions. I was told not only the way to get home. I was told why that gentlemen knew the way. It was explained to me that his cousin went to school in Alpharetta, and that’s how he knew how to get there. That’s how he knew the best way. He used to visit all the time, at that old high school in Alpharetta. He was from Dunwoody, but he had gone to prom at Alpharetta, with his cousin’s friend.

Once upon a time, stopping to ask directions meant looking a human in the face, and making a connection. One requested aid, and received it in return, a moment of time.

One time, again before GPS, I stopped in Austin, lost so very very lost, and just needed to know which way to drive to hit I-35. I knew the interstate was either this way or that way, but I didn’t know which one after getting spun around on the rat warren streets in the older neighborhoods. Gentlemen on the stoop of a convenience store chuckled a little while they confidently pointed the way, and I thought how weird that was until I realized they were pointing me in the wrong direction, and I was getting farther and farther away from the city.

These days, I have a GPS on my phone and I can charge the thing in my car. Last night, my phone ran out of power while I was crossing the city to go to a new restaurant, and I pulled over and sat in a parking lot for a few minutes with the charger plugged in to get it back on, to get back on the road with directions. I couldn’t tell you where I went, or how I got there, except to say that the GPS was correct.

They’re making self-driving cars. Soon, we will just sit in them and look out the window. We will tell the car where we want to go, and it will take us there, and along the way, we will smile dreamily at the city lights. We will all just be passengers, alone in our cars. We will love our cars. They will be like little living rooms with refrigerators tucked under the seat cushions to keep beverages cold, and perhaps a snack. Pulling into a drive-through for food, we will just hand over control of our car to the company that provides the food without a thought for hacking or malware, assuming ourselves safe. We will trust the cars with our lives with the sort of totality that one never felt about horses, who gazed back at us with such intelligent faces, such deep, demi-human good sense. The only difference between a car and a smart phone, then, will be the size of the thing, and the number of apps one can store on them for longer trips.

What will be the point of houses, then, for most of us? Rent is too damn high and will likely remain so. If our cars can drive us on renewable resources, provide such incredible shelter and comfort, and drift around anywhere we might like to go while we are sleeping, there will be no point for a single person who is able to work remotely to bother with leaving the car at all.

It will become this permanent shell. Exercise machines will be designed for commuters to keep them healthy. These commuters will chase sunsets and scenic vistas and restaurants and seasons and fleeing disasters.

Since we all love our cars with gasoline, there are going to be plenty of disasters to come. There will be plenty of reasons not to leave one’s car, if it can drive itself all night, with batteries storing the power of the sun and the occasional charging station. Commute, then, everywhere, and remain safe in the shell of the beloved machine that has so transformed us, and so quickly. One hundred years ago, our streets were for pedestrians and horses and bicycles and wild dogs and the reckless push and flood of everything at once. Now, there are only cars. Bicycles have their own special lane, sometimes. Pedestrians occasionally have sidewalks. All are subservient to the steel birds soaring at the center of everything.

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for our first official post, let’s talk about what’s the topic to talk about

Grumptroll is dedicated to the best grumpy, curmudgeonly coverage of the world at large, and anything goes. We could be reviewing books and magazines. We could be covering current events. We could be writing jokes about bees. Anything presented here, though, will be done with the clear intention of furthering our political agendas, and contrarian impulses.

We are the sort of people that assume the worst about everything we encounter, because it will almost always prove to be terrible, anyway, and the rare, glowing thing that’s any good will be statistically irrelevant in the waves of garbage presented to us.

We read a lot. We eat a lot. We think a lot. We study a lot.

And, we begin.

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