Thursday
Aug162018

INTERVIEW WITH BOB EVANS

Bob Evans and Susanne Chess

Bob Evans is impossible to pigeonhole. He's best known as an inventor/photographer/activist. And he's certainly one of Santa Barbara's most fascinating citizens -- Bob creates a brainstorm around him wherever he goes. He finds inspiration from unlikely sources and people, as well as landmarks of Santa Barbara life, like the Channel and the Marine life in it. Things that most of us pass by without noticing, Bob celebrates in his art, design and thoughts about how best to keep it part of our life.

His partner, Susanne Chess, describes Bob as a "solutions guy." As she puts it, "Bob's Force Fins were a solution to the problem with fins. His GasPods were a solution to a problem with aerodynamics and fuel savings for existing vehicles. And, on the way to the store this week he solved the problem of who will fill Macy's downtown revitalization, and something else I can't remember right now..."

As you've no doubt already gathered, Bob and Susanne are one of Santa Barbara's great couples: they exude the kind of support for each other's creativity and independent thinking that's all too rare. Not surprisingly, Bob came from a bohemian Southern California family that celebrated art, food, friends and community. And today that family includes their beloved nephew Zach Rosen who, like his uncle, has many talents, among them being a The Beer Guy columnist for the Santa Barbara Sentinel.

Bob generously agreed to answer the following ten questions I had about his work.

POLLY FROST: Where does this unusual drive to find solutions come from in you? Do you go about your day thinking, this does not work, hmm, hey, I have a solution! Or is it something else that gets fired off in you?

BOB EVANS: I am an artist. My father was an artist. My sisters are artists. My mother was a cooking writer. I was raised in a community of writers and artists, and creative energetic people joining us for meals in my parents' yard. Like the luncheons you throw, Polly. My creativity and the ideas and projects they spawned were supported by our community.

Creativity drives a desire to see things better. A sense of caring for all. Divine destiny to save human race from its own destructive actions. I've memories of a large arena, with thousands around tasked with balancing life here on this planet. We were weighing very heavy on the side of dump this round on Earth. Hope is gone. I step up and say, I will go back to turn the tide with others who have a dream of heaven on earth. I heard a "Good luck" and the debate continued as I left.

PF: Where do you get your solution inspirations from? Any Inventors, philosophers or artists who influenced you?

BE: Today, my inspiration is Mark Scot, the State Street person with a grey mane who collects recycled trash with passion. I think he deserves a Santa Barbara Beautiful Award. If you watch, you'll see him collecting trash along State Street, on the beach or beside the freeways. He motivated me to pick up at least one piece of trash and put it in the appropriate trash can every day. It doesn't matter who you are or what you do its inspiring to others if done with passion.

PF: My experience is that most people, especially in the political world, don't want solutions, they just want to complain. Agree or disagree?

BE: I can complain better than anyone. I thought of hosting a reality show, Complainers Corner. No shortage of material. Something to complain about, seeing problems is necessary to offering solutions.

Bob Evans finding solutionsWhat is frustrating, scary with the political world is programming. The media and its followers, the politically elite and not so elite, are programmed to hide in symbols: Blindly rooting for the position of their party, their team, or their brand. And, use these symbols to run interference, on communication, intelligent discussion all of which makes for bad decision making.

Take Congressperson Carbajal's introductory bill, H.R. 731, California Clean Coastal Act. Who in Santa Barbara can't get behind that. What a prize politically to be allowed to have his first bill introduced be a symbolic environmental gesture against offshore oil, President Trump and Interior Secretary Zinke in a single swoop.

Read the text, its only 3 paragraphs: "To permanently prohibit oil and gas leasing off the coast of the State of California, and for other purpose, for related purposes and paragraph 3, exempts existing leases." What are "other, related purposes," which require an offshore lease: Ocean current, wave, offshore wind and solar? Should the bill pass, the policy effect is to require any future offshore development in clean energy, current, wave or offshore wind or solar is controlled by the existing oil and gas lease holders.

The bill is a paradigm case of blinded by the enemy, but no one else would say that because it's a great symbol.

One of Bob's photos in the Marine Megatropolis show at the Maritime Museum
PF: Do you dream about your work?

BE: Dream? I visualize. When I conceive of a product or project, I see a visual image in my mind. I can see the process, what needs to transpire for it to materialize. I see it complete.

PF: Do you feel that the powers that be -- business and political -- want solutions?

BE: It depends. Some do, some don't. There are producers and there are obstructionists. There are those who respect success, and those who resent it. Unless it is Elon Musk.

I can't figure how the same people can cheer about launching a plastic car into space, burning millions of gallons of hydrazine, spewing its effluence into the atmosphere, while at the same time think it means something to pass an ordinance controlling plastic straws.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a world class advocate for the oceans. I don't want to see the gyres growing. We buy my water in glass bottles, wear cotton or linen, and leather shoes. There is no microfiber in our washing machine. My wife, Susanne is an Earth Mother from way back, and we own Fine Fabrics of Santa Barbara so we knew about these things before it was vogue.

I'm a mold maker. Worked with fiberglass epoxy making Force Fin molds for years. I know the hazards of styrene, which I wouldn't use in our tool and dye shop. I have not accepted drinking from a Styrofoam cup for years. And, thanks to Mark Scot I now make it a rule to pick up a piece of plastic someone has left discarded on our streets and deposit in its appropriate receptacle every day.

I take personal responsibility for my actions and those of my brothers and sisters.

PF: You've talked about how to use the off-shore oil platforms to create habitats. How do you feel the current ecology movement regards this?

BE: You know the platforms are a personal passion because of the 7-years I spent diving beneath them, logged over 850 dives, photo-documenting alternatives, historical other-than-oil uses, aquaculture and the marine life as it developed there. Sharing a tiny glimpse of that transformative adventure in Marine Megatropolis (1976-1981) Photos by Bob Evans at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum threw me into the debate. The Exhibit is now down, traveling to Channel Islands Maritime Museum in Oxnard, next year, but the bulk of it can be seen here.

Education is important. Most people don't know that like ships, the platforms have names. And, that each supports its own unique marine eco-system. What is consistent is that the marine communities established below the offshore oil platforms of the Santa Barbara Channel have been confirmed by Milton Love, Ph.D. of UCSB MSI and his brethren at the Academy of Sciences as among the most diverse and productive marine eco-systems in the world.

To quote my good friend, Jean Michel Cousteau, "We protect what we love." You can only protect it if you know it exists. Through his Ocean Futures Society he continues to educate about the beauty and plight of our Oceans. And, why my Marine Megatropolis educating about the underside of the Platforms and alternative uses is important.

Platform Holly which is currently being decommissioned is 12 times more diverse and productive than any coral reef. More productive than our Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary. In the words of Milton of which I agree, "There are hundreds of millions of organisms living on a typical platform and if you remove a platform, you kill them all, and I think that is immoral."

But, like H.R. 731 California Clean Coastal Act, the offshore oil platforms are a symbol of the anti-oil political coalition of Santa Barbara. Their power base, donations, and re-election depend upon a perception of standing up against the big bad enemy.

Like Roman leaders justifying leveling of Carthage. Destroy everything in our wake. It’s a conflict driven warlike mentality, feeding on an enemy culture. Like just about where every political discussion ends today. It’s a value disconnect.

Our oceans are in peril everywhere, and it is incumbent upon us to be stewards for the life that exists no matter where it chooses to thrive. The value based environmental, moral decision is to preserve the platform jackets, for the platform structure to remain in place. Plug the wells, remove the rig, clean up the oil drilling stuff, but the marine ecosystem must survive.

Bob and Susanne enjoying life and foodPF: Susanne says you go through the day having these solution inspirations. How do you keep track of them? Writing them down? Drawing?

BE: Photography is a tool I use, as is writing and drawing. I have a life time of log books that, when I look back I find trends. Like our water project. I found an interview of President Johnson discussing how important it was to solve our water problems, to prevent future wars.

Coastal desalination is the solution du jour, but most do not realize that the intake, pressure and filtering of desalination kills marine life, most notably plankton. Plankton supplies more than 50% of the oxygen in our atmosphere, and during its daily migration back and forth from surface to a depth of around 900 feet, scrubs and sequesters more CO2 than land systems. It's the saturation of CO2 in the top 30% of our oceans that is contributing to ocean acidification and global climate change. The outflow of brine from coastal desalination systems creates coastal kill zones. In short, should the Surfrider Foundation lose its one-by-one fight against establishment of 17 Carlsbad size coastal desalination facilities along our coastline, our need for water will roll back any strides for the oceans we think we have made.

 

Bob finding alternative ways to save energy minus buying a TeslaPF: What 3 solutions to problems in Santa Barbara would you like to see?

BE: We are working on solutions to global problems right now: We just filed patents on a project we've been on since 2015, a new method of desalination that came in around 40% more energy efficient and is designed to have around 90% less environmental impact.

Our experience working with the City of Santa Barbara is stonewall. One example for my Complainers Corner, our AeroHance GasPod Project.

I talk with the Mayor, it was Helene Schneider when we started in 2012. I offer to GasPod their commuter vehicles at no charge. The Mayor refers us to their environmental officer, who cuts us short by advising she is under no obligation to work with vendors. How about local businesses?

Their fleet manager refuses to engage us further, summarily dismissing the product as tried and it does not work. As we were just starting out, we knew where every GasPod landed, and it was not on any City vehicle for him to try.

We turned to individuals and businesses, locally Ablitts, The Berryman and Kanaloa reported savings of fuel, money and reduced the carbon foot print of their delivery vehicles. They are just a few of the 10s of thousands who took initiative to Be Atmospheric: Our mantra, if just 2% of the close to 2 billion drivers reduce their fuel consumption by 5%, our baseline for effectiveness, it means more to the environment than any government or industry program in effect today.

Motivating personal initiative. Population is our biggest problem today, but people can be a powerful force for good if educated and motivated, not just manipulated.

PF: You and Susanne seem to have a great partnership. Is Susanne different from you in her approach to life?

BE: She has more patience, which she needs with me. I am a handful. I think we agree on lifestyle. We could not have been together for 50 lifetimes, a past life reading revealed, if not. She does approach problem solving and projects differently than I do. In that way we are complimentary.

PF: I believe great design genius simplifies rather than complexifies. But I find it's common in America to reject simplification. Agree or disagree? If you agree, why do you think they reject simplification?

BE: I think technology has contributed to this. I grew up drawing pictures and posing for my father's clay sculptures and sitting for his paintings. He was a classically trained artist and rolling into the 1960s simplicity was a paradigm. Problem solving the way I learned was a creative process, and elegance was the standard. Problem solving the way the post technological generation has learned is gaming. The more problems you solve in a computer game, the more complex the next problem you approach. There can never be a solution.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT BOB EVANS AND SUSANNE CHESS:

Gas Pods

The Force Fin

Marine Megatropolis

Fine Fabrics of Santa Barbara

Sunday
Jul222018

IN MEMORY OF BRIAN KELLOW 1959-2018

Brian Kellow in a shirt I designed and made for him. He loved vibrant colors, especially bright green.

When I was a SoCal kid I fantasized a lot about going to New York City one day to be part of the big, glamorous, brainy arts and media world. I dreamt of becoming friends with hundreds of brilliant, clever, ambitious people who would form a community of mutual support.

Brian Kellow was exactly the kind of person I'd dream of becoming friends with in NYC.

He was incredibly well-read in literature and philosophy (and, I would later find out, in theology as well). He was also well-trained and knowledgeable in classical music as well as Broadway. He had a day job as an excellent editor at Opera News for twenty-eight years (my husband Ray and I wrote several pieces for Brian and can both attest to his editing skills).

At the same time he wrote and published a bunch of highly-praised biographies about powerful women in the arts: among them, the larger-than-any-Broadway- stage Ethel Merman, the influential New Yorker magazine film critic, Pauline Kael, and the bigger-balls-than-any-man Hollywood superagent, Sue Mengers.

Brian was the right biographer for those women. He thought gutsy dames were heroines. And yet he was able to be objective about them. In each book, he shows that these strong women could make bad choices or even ethically wrong choices, but they also never succumbed to feminism's view of female victimhood. Brian showed how each of them pursued their passion singlemindedly and succeeded without ever playing the victim card. I think these biography books should be on the reading list for every teenage girl.

Brian was both extremely talented as a writer and able to succeed in the difficult world of NYC media. He could write a perfectly organized article -- make that a perfectly organized book -- with enviable ease. No writer's block for Brian!

Perhaps this had something to do with Brian's friendly relationship with his background. Raised on a farm in Oregon, Brian never hated his small-town upbringing or rejected it, the way so many people who come to NYC do. He adored his father, a hilariously ornery man who drove a tractor on the freeway at age 96 and gave the finger to honking cars who wanted to pass, and who adored Brian and not only accepted that he was gay, but embraced Brian's spouse, Scott Barnes.

Brian was generous in his interest and praise of other writers and artists. Which meant that at the end of a day of writing, Brian was the ideal dinner companion. He could set aside all of his own ambition and listen to what you were up to and what you thought. When he disagreed, he did so exuberantly, in a way that made you want to think more and write more about your opinions. Well, he was of Irish descent, after all. He had the Irish gift of gab.

And Brian loved to laugh. He and I used to meet for dinner at Jack's (which sadly went under financially as so many downtown restaurants did after Hurricane Sandy). Brian loved salmon, and Jack's had an under $20 pre-fixe that included it. One night there, Brian got up to use the bathroom and returned five minutes later. "There's a couple having sex in the bathroom," he roared. "I tried to open the door and one of them kicked it shut." He paused, enjoyed a bite of salmon and said "Let's see if we can figure out who they are when they walk through the restaurant." Moments later, a middle-aged couple, walked through the restaurant blushing and looking quite post-coital. "That's got to be them!" Brian said.

That was Brian. He loved to talk about the latest opera production and he loved to talk about just what was happening at that moment. He loved the arts and he loved life. 

I thought I'd meet hundreds of people like Brian in New York City. But what I learned from my years there was that Brian was a very rare person in the arts world. I met many brilliant, talented and glamorous people. I often loved their work and I loved the kind of high-level conversation I could have with them at parties or events. But most of the brilliant, talented people I came to know were either so ambitious that they couldn't be a friend let alone keep themselves from indulging in Schadenfreude when people they knew had a downturn in their careers, or they were so neurotic it was impossible to deal with them on an easy level, or they were so narcissistic that they spent all their time over dinner talking about themselves, or they would be so entrenched in their beliefs, whether political or about even the most obscure foreign film director, that if you disagreed with them they'd cut you out of their life.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Brian was his resilience. Just a few years ago, times were unbelievably tough for him in a number of ways. Brian reconfigured his career and dealt with his personal losses in the most gallant way and he never lost his generosity towards others.

Now that I've fulfilled my dream of living the cultural and media life in NYC, I look back on it with a lot of gratitude for who I knew there and what I was able to do as a writer. And yet, I long ago gave up thinking my life there would be made up of hundreds of friends like Brian Kellow. The truth is, I've only known a handful of art and media people who were like Brian -- whose work I admired, and who were open and generous to others, and had it in them to wish others well. Those friendships are all too rare and very, very precious.

Today I'm thinking about the opening lines from Erich Segal's Love Story, a long-forgotten novel that was popular when I was a teen. The novel struck me as ridiculously corny then. But like many bestselling works of pop fiction, there was enduring truth mixed in with the corniness. Segal's lines resonate for me today. "What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me."

Brian was 59, and fifty-nine was too young for him to go. He had achieved so much, yet he was about to move on to perhaps even more wonderful things. It was as though he was becoming Brian 2.0. He was working on a memoir, a novel, and had a job at Miami Opera.

Brian died from brain cancer. "What can you say about a man who died at only 59? That he was beautiful. And brilliant. That he loved Mozart and Bach. And Broadway tunes. And that he was a very dear friend to me."

Here are links to Brian's website, his books and his blog:

Brian Kellow website

Follow Kellow -- his blog

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood's First Superagent

Ethel Merman: A Life

 

Friday
Jun292018

TRIAL BY HEADLINE

It’s nothing new for newspapers to indulge in sensationalism and to publish articles that will create a furor without providing trustworthy facts. William Randolph Hearst earned a place in history by (among other things) saying, “You furnish me the pictures and I’ll furnish you the war.”

But, in another era, that style of publishing was labeled “yellow journalism” and there was understood to be a clear division between Hearst-style publications (and the tabloids that followed his lead) and media outlets like The New York Times, the Washington Post and The New Yorker, which set themselves up in opposition to trashy, irresponsible and exploitative outlets as respectable, well-documented and meticulously fact-checked.

Today, though, the line between respectable outlets and the tabloid, Yellow press often seems to have been erased. It’s as though respectable media outlets are now determined to have it both ways. They want to publish scandalous, click-baiting stories — to create impact for impact’s own sake — yet to do it without sacrificing their reputations as sober-sided, trustworthy establishment institutions.

In a previous blog posting I wrote at length about a recent front page article in The New York Times titled The Equestrian Who Minted Olympians, and Left Behind a Trail of Child Molestation, by Sarah Maslin Nir.

I found the article appalling on many levels. To begin with, I question the editorial judgement that led to The Times featuring the story on their front page. I understand the convention of The Times running a grabby human-interest story among the front page’s heavyweight tales of wars and natural disasters. But even granting that sexual abuse, especially in women’s sports, is nothing if not a trendy theme, it still strikes me as more of a National Enquirer-style decision than a traditional Times one to feature this particular article. In what universe is a story about a largely-unknown man who died twenty-five years ago a pressing one?

To turn to the headline: notice the words “child molestation.” I think it’s fair to say that such a headline will lead most readers to anticipate learning about a trail of events. Yet the piece makes mention of precisely one instance of purported child molestation by a woman who claims Williams molested her when she was eleven. The other women were teenagers. Are teenagers now considered children? "Underage" might have been a more appropriate word than "child" for the headline, but it wouldn't have been as grabby. 

This isn't to say Williams is not guilty of sexual abuse. He's dead and can't be tried in a real court. So I have no idea. It's to say that journalistic truth should not be based on hearsay. In the body of her article, Sarah Maslin Nir makes only the most cursory efforts to supply other dimensions to her story. In the current fashion, she lets “many women are making similar accusations” do the work of establishing proof, as though women never lie, or misremember, or change their minds, or rewrite their histories, or climb on a bandwagon in order to validate each other. And as for context — hey, this was the ‘60s and ‘70s we’re talking about. People’s standards were very different than they are now. Yet the article makes almost no effort to convey what life on the circuit was like in those days. Can we assume that it’s now open season on the rock stars of that era, nearly all of whom enjoyed nights and flings with teenaged girls? 

And yet, because of these accusations, Jimmy Williams, a genuinely great horse trainer, has already been stripped of all his honors and his association with the Flintridge Riding Club, an institution that he led to glory. He’s not alive to defend himself, but for all intents and purposes he’s been found guilty and punished nonetheless.

For another example of a more general sort, consider a recent Washington Post piece called Half of women in science experience harassment, a sweeping new report finds, by Sarah Kaplan and Ben Guarino. The piece relates the findings and recommendations of a recent study conducted by a sub-committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Half of women in these fields report having been sexually harassed, we learn. Drastic reform measures are required. 

What’s stunning about the Post’s article is how credulous it is. If you look for opinions about the research and the study from non-partisans, you won’t find any. You won’t, in fact, find any remarks in the article from any male scientists at all. Only one male is mentioned by name, and he’s just one of the study’s researchers. In the article, in other words, men are present only as shadowy bad guys.

The article also slides slickly from statistics to recommendations with no pause to examine values. Let’s examine a few instances in the article’s language. 

“The findings help explain how harassment can push women out of science or create an environment so hostile that their work suffers,” Kaplan and Guarino write. A reader might wonder: Do the findings really explain this? No proof is offered. 

“Medical students were the most likely to be harassed by faculty or staff,” say Kaplan and Guarino. It’s hard not to notice the absence of the words “to say,” as in these women said they’d been harassed. Is it really true that all women who feel they’ve been harassed in fact have suffered harassment?

And what does the article (and the study it’s reporting on) mean by harassment anyway? If you look for a definition of how the study defined “harassment,” you won’t find one. The closest thing, you’ll find, is a mere hint: the category apparently includes “sexist remarks, jokes and inappropriate comments,” or maybe “mind games.” What to make of those of us who consider jokes, remarks and mind games to be rather unimportant things?

In other words, while the article is no doubt reporting the study’s stats accurately, it’s also notable for completely ignoring and questioning the study’s values, definitions, interpretations and recommendations. It offers nothing but implicit endorsement, and zero perspective.

What could really be going on in this case? The article hints at what I’m guessing the answer is: the report and the article are pieces of Gender-Studies-style activism. The article includes a quote from Kathryn Clancy, one of the report’s authors. She says about the study and the field, that if she had the power to do so, “I would say, ‘Burn it all down, and let's start over.’”

Any sensible person would recognize that as the language of a true-believing revolutionary. Why is no one in the article responding to such a sentiment? Would it in fact be a good idea to burn the whole field of science down?

But the article is so credulous that it in fact hands its resonant last words to Kathryn Clancy: “Scientists have equated rigor and being critical with being cruel,” Clancy said. “If we can move away from that cultural norm, toward understanding that rigor and criticism come from collaboration and cooperation, we're just going to be so much better off.”

How long will it be before he's taken out of the history books by the feminists?

Is that really a good idea? Why are we given no one who disagrees?

And who is Kathryn Clancy? I confess that I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn that she’s a professor not of physics or math but of anthropology — and isn’t whether anthropology is a science or not under perpetual hot debate? — and that she has a degree in Gender Studies. 

Even when a publication makes a big show these days of presenting a piece on a hot topic in a seemingly balanced way, the internal slant is often severe. Time magazine recently ran a piece by Katie Reilly titled A Yale Student Accused Her Classmate of Rape. His Lawyers Asked What She Was Wearing and How Much She Drank.

Let’s skip over the cleverly incendiary headline, obviously meant to make us feel that an outrage has been committed. (Poor girl, subjected to such unfairness!) 

In brief: Yale student Saifullah Khan, was accused of rape in 2015 by a female Yalie. After being accused and suspended from school pending disciplinary hearings, Khan was acquitted early this year in a non-college court — those places where trials take place in the traditional way, not kangaroo-style.

The piece makes excruciatingly careful efforts to be balanced in the old “on the one hand … on the other hand …” Time magazine way. We’re meant to find the case interesting because it highlights certain current hot, difficult issues. How interesting that we’re living through “a moment when the very definition of consent and sexual assault is being debated on college campuses.”

Yet on closer examination, the piece’s slant starts to look more and more outrageous. Three objective-seeming authority figures from official-sounding groups like the National Women’s Law Center are quoted in support of the “victim,” while the only figure is quoted in support of Khan. That one figure in Khan’s corner is his lawyer, by the way. Being his lawyer, we’re all instantly skeptical of him. 

The slant is given away finally by the piece’s big finale: “This case is every survivor’s worst victim-blaming nightmare,” says Jess Davidson, described as “interim executive director of the group End Rape on Campus.” Where’s the spokesperson for the accused male’s team?

Compulsive researcher that I am, I found out that Katie Reilly, the article’s author, graduated from college three years ago, and that, during her years as a student at UNC Chapel Hill, she was co-director of the college’s Social Justice Center. For a different view of the Khan trial, read Cynthia Garrett who attended the trial. You will learn, through Garrett, that in fact, Khan was subjected to as much interrogation about his character as was his accuser.

And Khan will be subjected to more interrogation when Yale conducts their own trial. For a blast of arrogant stupidity and inaccurate ramblings about the courtroom trial of Khan (she gets nearly everything wrong), and about how superior Yale's justice system is than our mere traditional courtrooms, read college senior Amelia Nierenberg in Yale News. I bet she'd even think that Ruth Bader Ginsburg could learn from Yale's wonderful court system in which accusers are not interrogated because that's a "misogynistic tactic that men habitually use to silence women." As opposed to being due process, which one gathers Nierenberg thinks is just more white male supremacy. It's terrifying to think that Nierenberg has won awards for spewing this dangerous nonsense -- and guess what? -- she's headed towards a career in journalism! Just what we need, another bad journalist convinced she knows what the world needs from their headlines.

How important is all this? Extremely. I run into its effects nearly every time I hang out with friends. This is especially common among Boomer and older people, who remain convinced that a Times piece or a New Yorker piece still carries the same weight that such a thing did back in 1975.

I think it’s important not to forget how crazy and bad things can get. One of the old media’s most shameful recent episodes was the Satanic ritual abuse hysteria of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. From the mid-80s to the early 90s, publications (respectable and otherwise) and the readers who trusted them were convinced that sexual abuse of the most outrageous and absurd kind was taking place at day-care centers all across America. (The most famous case was the McMartin preschool case.) According to many mainstream accounts, children were being anally raped every day, with adults wielding crosses in subterranean corridors. 

As a result of these reports, and of everyday people’s credulousness about them, dozens of hardworking day-care workers lost their businesses; many of them spent years in jail. None — let me repeat, NONE — of these sentences have held up on appeal or on further investigation. (Wikipedia’s entry on the episode is very good.) 

It was a shameful episode in journalism in an era when journalism was generally more grounded and substantial than it is today. But am I dreaming? Was the American mainstream journalism of the past as substantial as I remember it? Am I nothing but (horrors) a nostalgic Boomer? 

Struck repeatedly by how shallow and juvenile so much of today’s high-visibility mainstream media stories have been, I recently spent a couple of days poking through the archives at The Times, The Post and the L.A. Times, along with other magazines and newspapers. Was their legendary journalism from the ‘60s and ‘70s as impressive as I remember it being?

Verdict: yes, absolutely. Whether covering Vietnam, Watergate or developments in Hollywood, the articles in the ‘60s or ‘80s were usually layered and substantial. Reading them, you felt you were in the hands of tough-minded professionals who knew how the world worked — instead of starry-eyed recent Gender Study grads — and who’d done their homework. Whether or not you agreed with the thrust and angle of the coverage, there was an amazing amount of substance to it. 

What we’re not seeing enough these days is work by someone like Debbie Nathan, almost unique among the reporters who were on the Satanic-ritual-abuse case. Writing mostly for the Village Voice, Nathan blew the whistle on the craziness we were being subjected to. (Her book about the episode is great.) Nathan did what we hope a real reporter will do: she examined the facts and uncovered actual truth, instead of going into writing a story with a preset idea of who’s the bad person and who’s the victim.

In the late ‘80s, the country seemed to be caught up in hysteria, a frenzy of fear. Women were working and perhaps feeling a combination of guilt and jealousy about the day-care substitute parents who were taking care of their children. Anti-sexual feminism was bizarrely merging with fundamentalist Christianity. The upshot was a vulnerability to absurdities and a genuine witch-hunt. We were, in short, living through what Marshall McLuhan and later Stanley Cohen termed a “moral panic.”

Could we be living through something similar today? I’d say yes. For all the licentiousness of today’s popular culture, there’s a sexual prissiness in the air that’s very judgmental and dismaying. But our era has its own distinctive characteristics too. Practically speaking: at publications, fact-checking departments have vanished. MSM outlets have, for budgetary reasons, been shedding old time reporters who, whatever their shortcomings, had hides and had seen it all, and have been hiring (at half the salaries) ambitious, eager-beaver Gender-Studies grads to fill those spots.

But what’s really behind the current craziness may mostly be desperation and hysteria: desperation on the part of the political/journalism class, who sense themselves losing control of the conversation. This class has been furious ever since they flubbed their chance to get Hillary into the White House. They were humiliated and shown up by the election, and they’ve been scrambling ever since to reclaim their traditional power. If they can’t get Trump impeached, they’ll settle for dethroning as many other people — preferably straight white males, of course — as they can: filmmakers, scientists, students, even long-dead horse trainers. And then they'll blame their shoddy journalism on Trump. Whether or not one likes Trump, shoddy journalism is just shoddy journalism. Could we possibly return to the days of Woodward and Bernstein when standards were higher and bad journalism wasn't blamed on Nixon?

The upshot is loads of cheap, shallow stories being run in publications that are exploiting their legendary, hard-won brands to lend legitimacy to lousy work.

I doubt these same people who trust the integrity of these mainstream newspapers and magazines would ever give any credence to articles and headlines in The National Enquirer or other tabloids. And yet, if you pick up one of these magazines and compare the reporting in them to what’s being peddled by the respectable outlets, they’ve become quite similar. Actually, I often find the reporting in the tabloids to be more measured and to bear more of a semblance to traditional reporting than the reporting in the respectable outlets. 

What’s really disturbing to me is how many educated people will read a headline that calls someone a “child molester” these days and simply accept the verdict. Forget being presumed innocent until proven guilty when you’re tried in the pages of the The Times, New Yorker or Washington Post. Why don’t the people who haven’t worked in the business not recognize the signs of how shoddy standards in today’s respectable reporting has become? 

The old outlets, the ones respectable people still trust, the ones who are doing their best to scare all of us about “fake news,” are no longer what they were back in the ‘60s or ‘80s. These days, they’re living on the credit they built up over decades past while acting these days like the most exploitative publications. OK, yes, they’re still running occasional good substantial pieces. But in far too many cases they’re simply using their brands and imprimaturs to lend credence to the least credible articles.

The New Yorker, Time, The Times, the Washington Post … They don’t just want current day justice on their terms. They want to show they can have statues and honors stripped from people of the past. They want to show they can rewrite history. They no longer want to be mere newspapers and magazines. They want to be courts of law.

***

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Friday
Jun222018

IN PRAISE OF GLUTEN: PART 1 -- SALT-RISING BREAD

Apprentice Amy Dawson and Salt-Rising Bread experts Genevieve Bardwell and Susan Brown.

This is the start of my blog series "In Praise of Gluten." I'm going to say it upfront: I love gluten. I know people who say it makes them feel sick and they feel better if they cut it out of their diet.

If they do, that's great. But I hate seeing gluten demonized. It annoys me to walk through supermarket aisles and see "Gluten-Free" commercial foods. Saying something is "Gluten-Free" is like saying gluten is a prison people need to escape. It's not.

Here's my own personal hunch. I believe the real problem many of these gluten-hatin' people have is not gluten. It's that people don't bake their own bread any longer. Plus they don't live in places where there's a local bakery that makes bread from scratch in-house.

I think most of us have memories of great bread we've eaten: crusty baguettes we dipped in sauces and soups, rye bread that made a perfect sandwich, brioche that created the best French toast -- or in the case of Marcel Proust -- the madeleine that made him write all seven volumes of "In Search of Lost Time." I have a very hard time believing the generation raised on "Gluten-Free" baked goods will have any Proustian memories of those cardboard things they're eating made with xanthan gum.

So I'm thrilled to kick off this blog series by interviewing Susan Brown, a charming and passionate baker who co-authored the cookbook "Salt-Rising Bread: Recipes and Heartfelt Stories of a Nearly Lost Appalachian Tradition." And just so you Gluten-Free readers know, the book also includes a way to make Salt-Rising Bread with a recipe just for you.

My own introduction to Salt-Rising Bread was recent. I've been baking all of our bread for two years. However, I became intrigued with making Salt-Rising Bread only two months ago. I was told about it by my friend, Bill Stern, former food columnist for the LA Weekly (I wish they'd run an archive of his reviews) and now director of the Museum of California Design in Los Angeles. Even though Bill didn't grow up eating Salt-Rising Bread, he had great memories of eating it in Kentucky.

I'd never had Salt-Rising Bread, let alone heard of it. But when Bill says something like that, I take note. I had to find out more. I researched the internet about Salt-Rising Bread and found a recipe on the King Arthur website. There were warnings about making it. For one thing, it's tricky because it doesn't use yeast. It rises without yeast. And when the starter for it is really working, King Arthur said your place would smell like dirty socks.

Indeed, our place did smell like dirty socks. So it was working!

Yet, after the loaf was baked and cooled enough to slice into, the stinky sock smell was gone and that bread became deliciously cheesy. And it made the best toast that my husband and I had ever tasted.

I researched further. I discovered that Salt-Rising Bread had cult-like devotees. People talked about it the way Proust did about his madeleine. They searched long and hard for it, just so they could go back in time. What was it about Salt-Rising Bread that gave it this miraculous ability to inspire such loyalty?

I found the cookbook "Salt-Rising Bread" by Genevieve Bardwell and Susan Brown. (Bardwell owned Rising Creek Bakery in Mt. Morris, PA, where Salt-Rising Bread was a beloved fixture on the menu.) I read through it in a way I don't read through many other cookbooks. I was riveted -- and I was moved. I made a recipe for Salt-Rising Bread out of the book. Yes, it was stinky. Less stinky than the King Arthur Recipe, but still stinky. And delicious -- the toast was the best ever!

There's something about Salt-Rising Bread that's so personal you feel a connection with the people who make it. I found the website "Salt-Rising Bread Project" which Susan Brown runs and contacted her. She generously agreed to the following interview (and Salt-Rising Bread will be known as SRB):

Polly Frost: You write very passionately in your book about Salt-Rising Bread. Would you describe yourself as a passionate person in general or is there something specific about Salt-Rising Bread that you just love?

Susan Brown: I feel passionate about Salt-Rising Bread because of my grandmother, Katheryn Rippetoe Erwin. She made Salt-Rising Bread all of her life, as did her mother and her mother’s mother. I loved my grandmother, and I loved her Salt-Rising Bread. It is to Grandmother that I owe my appreciation for this bread, and to her that I attribute my commitment to carry on this family tradition in any way that I can. Whether it was for church bazaars, PTA bake sales, funeral dinners, ailing neighbors, or just “baking day,” Katheryn Erwin’s Salt-Rising Bread was famous in her hometown of Ronceverte, West Virginia. My memories of those early morning awakenings to check to see if her starter had come, and her wonderful breakfasts of fried bacon, eggs-over-easy, and Salt-Rising toast eaten at her kitchen table, stay with me and propel me year after year to keep the Salt-Rising Bread tradition alive. Although my grandmother is no longer with us, I never butter a slice of Salt-Rising toast without feeling her right there by my side.

PF: You mastered the quirky and temperamental art of making Salt-Rising Bread. Were you always a baker?

SB: I began baking at a very young age. I grew up in a large family, and cooking and baking were ways in which I could help my mother. In a family of many children, it was one way to get some positive approbation, which I think I yearned for.

PF: Can you tell me a bit about how Rising Creek Bakery came about?

SB: Two friends and I raised our daughters together in the same small community. During those years, we often talked about someday opening a bakery together in the town. In 2010, when the girls were out of school and had gone away to college, we opened Rising Creek Bakery. Only one of us owned it, and that was Genevieve ("Jenny") Bardwell. From the start, one of our most important goals for the bakery was to bake and sell SRB in an effort to help revive and keep alive this nearly forgotten Appalachian tradition. Jenny sold the bakery earlier this year, and the new owners hope to continue baking, selling, and shipping SRB. It was a fun ride, but definitely better suited for a younger generation than we have each become.

PF: In your book you discuss the question of the start of Salt-Rising Bread, and say that the exact origin of it remains a mystery. Do you think the mystery of its origin will ever be solved?

SB: Because eating SRB was a tradition for many generations on both my mother and father's sides of the family, I always assumed that this tradition was brought with them from their native Scotland, Ireland, and England. However, we have found no evidence of this bread ever having been made in those countries. Based on our research, Jenny and I conclude that SRB originated in the Appalachian mountain region in the early 1700s when yeast was not available for baking and when women, out of their own ingenuity, discovered by necessity how to make a risen loaf of bread for feeding their families. It is likely that they left a mixture of flour and milk, or flour and water, in a warm place (near an open hearth or by a fire used for cooking) for several hours or perhaps overnight and discovered it bubbled and rose after setting several hours. This led them to realize that they could make a risen bread this way.

PF: Most people reading this blog posting sadly will never have tasted Salt-Rising Bread, even those who buy bread from artisanal bakeries or make bread themselves. What would you say they're missing? And what is the home baker missing by not making it?

SB: People love bread for many reasons. With SRB, many, many people love it because they connect this bread with a memory of a loved one who made it for them. They also love it because it has a wonderful taste and can’t be beat for the best toast on the planet. People who haven’t tried SRB are missing out on enjoying this unique tasting bread. The home baker who doesn’t make SRB is missing out on the enjoyment and personal satisfaction received when giving friends and family this bread that happily fills their stomachs and warms their heart and soul.

PF: What do you think of the gluten-free thing?

SB: To tell you the truth, I don’t think much about this. It does seem to me to be a bit of a “food fad” right now, but I’m sure that, for some people, gluten is a problem for them. Mostly, I just feel sorry for them because they have to miss out on so many wonderful breads and other foods that contain gluten.

PF: How popular was SRB at its most popular?

SB: Salt-Rising Bread had its heyday from roughly the 1930s through the 1970s. This is mainly due to the work of a Kansas (and later Pittsburgh) scientist named Dr. Henry Kohman. In the late teens and mid-1920s, he studied the science of SRB and discovered the bacteria that grow in the starter that enables the starter to ferment. From this knowledge, he was able to make a dried starter and patented that recipe. He then sold it to bakeries all across the United States. With this commercial starter, bakeries were able to make SRB much more reliably than ever before, so it was made in many states. In the early 1980s, the manufacturers of this dried starter stopped selling it, which was the end of most bakeries making SRB. It was simply just too tough to do it without the boost and reliability of Kohman’s Salt-Rising Bread Yeast (even though it was not really a yeast).

PF: This is a great era for artisanal bakeries, wineries, beer making, old cocktails and fermentation. Young people are rediscovering old ways of making and growing food. Two young women bakers took over Rising Creek and are continuing the traditions of food. Are there other artisanal bakeries right now who are making SRB?

SB: Of course, I cannot know for sure who is out there making SRB in bakeries right now, but I am pretty confident that there aren’t many. Jenny and I believe that there is currently no bakery that makes and sells as much SRB as Rising Creek does. We are aware of a few small bakeries that make a handful of SRB weekly. It requires a tremendous amount of dedication, time, patience, and hard work to make SRB on a constant and reliable basis. Sadly, few people are willing to commit to an endeavor like that.

PF: How do you find young people who didn't grow up with it reacting to it on first taste?

SB: It has been my perception that newcomers to SRB have been pleasantly surprised at its good taste. It has been very gratifying to me and to Jenny to know that we have helped to pass on and to keep this tradition alive through our work at the bakery, through our book, and through the SRB classes that we teach throughout the year.

PF: I began making SRB right after we had a major fire and mudslide where we live in Montecito, CA. The air was full of toxins for months afterwards. Nonetheless, my SRB flourished! What do you make of that?

SB: First of all, let me say that I am so sorry to hear of the destruction and sadness that your area suffered. It is hard to imagine going through something like that. As for why your SRB flourished at that time, I dare say that it had anything to do with what was occurring with the disaster. SRB was first made and has historically been made by women who were enduring hard times. It has, itself, endured for a long time since its beginnings in our mountains some 300 years ago. History shows us that SRB has lasted and continues to last because women (and a few men) have persisted and not given up on it, even during the tough times, whether they be due to weather or personal circumstance.

PF: I’m hoping my blog readers will buy your book and start making SRB regularly! Do you have any advice for them?

SB: We tell perspective SRB bakers that when you make SRB you need to have patience and perseverance. It takes a long time to make, and it doesn’t always work, so you need to be willing to keep trying.

PF: What's the difference between making SRB with just cornmeal and making it with potatoes and cornmeal and do you think one is better?

SB: It is interesting that there are actually many recipes for making SRB. However, the one similarity that all recipes share is that every recipe will use at least flour, cornmeal, or potato in the starter. Beyond that, any differences in the recipe will not affect the bread in the end. Sometimes I think that I find the potato starter makes a little moister loaf, but that is not necessarily so. Certainly, the taste is not affected by the variance in the starter of cornmeal only or cornmeal and potatoes. The difference you will see when potatoes are added to a starter is in the way the successfully fermented starter looks. Typically, a potato starter will rise more than a cornmeal starter.

PF: I love the stories and photos of Salt-Rising Bread home bakers in your book. What did it involve for you to find them and how did they enrich your knowledge of it?

SB: I have lived around women who made SRB all of my life. No matter where I have lived in the hills of West Virginia, there have been women nearby who made SRB. When Jenny and I began writing the book, we actively sought out women who made SRB and arranged to visit them in their homes. Even though many of them were strangers to us, they never turned us away, and they were always very kind in sharing their knowledge and stories with us. Sometimes, the women we interviewed would tell us the names of other SRB bakers in their area, so we interviewed them, as well. West Virginia is a small state, so it was possible for us to travel all over the state to find these women and to learn all we could from talking and visiting with them. Indeed, this was one of the most fulfilling experiences we had in writing the book. Not only did they teach us so much about SRB, but they shared some wonderful stories and memories with us that we will never forget.

PF: What have been some of your favorite letters, emails and other feedback from readers? What do they ask, does it seem to work in every part?

SB: We often say that Salt-Rising Bread is food for the body as well as for the soul. In fact, almost everyone who has eaten Salt-Rising Bread has a story to tell about it. These stories loom large in the hearts of those who love the bread. They are, indeed, another reason why the Salt-Rising Bread tradition lives on in our Appalachian homes and why it is so important and so special to preserve this bread and the stories that help keep this tradition alive. I have received hundreds of emails and letters over the years from lovers of SRB. As well, Jenny has received many at the bakery. Mostly, they tell us about someone beloved to them who made SRB. Often, they retell stories of the past that include SRB in them. Some write to ask questions about how to make the bread or how to help them solve problems they are having making the bread. Here are a few of my favorite stories that you might enjoy:

"I grew up in Sacramento, CA and would visit my grandmother in Southern California when I was a kid. That would have been in the '60s. She had two huge avocado trees in her back yard (along with wonderful walnut and Meyer lemon trees). We would go to Van De Kamp Bakery in her area and would buy the Salt-Rising Bread. As kids, my sister and I were fascinated with the windmill logo that turned and was lit up. You could see it for miles. The bakery smelled wonderful but it was even better when we would toast the Salt-Rising Bread back at the house. It made the whole house "stink" and we referred to the toast as "stinky toast". We would mash wonderful, fresh avocados from my grandmother's trees onto the buttered, still-warm toasted bread for breakfast. A little salt on top. We always looked forward to this breakfast when we would visit my grandmother. We would also buy 4 or 5 loaves of the bread to bring back home to Sacramento, and we would put them in the freezer and use them sparingly. We loved the bread."

"I grew up in Spelter, WV, just north of Clarksburg on Rt 19 (where the zinc factory used to be). My grandmother baked this bread EVERY Saturday morning of her life. I don't think she ever bought bread. She would make several loaves and a couple of cookie sheets full of wonderful large buns. We lived next door, and she would call me over just before she took the bread out of the oven. I would race over and wait (usually impatiently) until the bread came out. Then I would take one of the buns and poke my finger into the middle and wiggle it around to hollow it out a bit. I would then put fresh, real butter and my daddy's homemade blackberry jelly down into the hot bread. It would melt, and I would sit and eat that bun with a glass of cold milk. I'm 50 years old and my granny has been gone for nearly 40 years. If I close my eyes and let myself go back in time, I can still smell that wonderful aroma as the bread was baking and still feel my finger burning from sticking it into the bread (you'd think I would have learned to use a knife or fork!!!!)  and I can almost taste that wonderful treat. It's one of my most treasured memories of my grandmother, who was my favorite person in the world!"

"Some of the best memories I have of home revolved around Salt-Rising Bread (it was "Ketterings"). Whenever both my sister and I could make it home to Clarksburg, WV, at the same time, Sunday morning was Salt-Rising Toast Time. We'd have Ma's brewed, sweetened ice tea and all the Salt-Rising toast we could eat. We'd always buy 2-3 loaves so we'd be sure there was enough toast to go around because Daddy liked it, too. We'd all sit around the table or on the floor by the table and read the Sunday paper and have our toast. Our Saint Bernard, Benjamin, even got a piece or two! Ma and Daddems are gone now. My sister lives in South Carolina, and I live in Texas. I have no doubt that the toast you send will be wonderful, but the memories that I'll have with that toast will be even better."

"I am ninety years old and have very fond memories of salt '"risen"bread. As a preteen, I spent most of my summers with my widowed grandmother and her niece on the farm. Thursday was baking day and Wednesday night "cousin Mag" prepared the starter from I don't know what except there was a potato and meal and possibly some milk. The meal was our own, having been ground from our corn at a local mill. The starter was placed in the warming oven of an old wood burning stove, and how they kept the temperature up during the night I don't know, but it worked. Thursday the baking began, and we had fresh bread with homemade butter and homemade jam that day and for a few days longer."

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Tuesday
Jun192018

REMEMBERING PAULINE KAEL 1919 - 2001

Pauline Kael would have been 99 today. I was privileged to call her a friend. Here's an essay I wrote for the book "Talking About Pauline Kael: Critics, Filmmakers & Scholars Remember an Icon" edited by Wayne Stengel. To read the full essay, click here.

Pauline Kael liked to dial up her friends at all hours, engaging in long conversations. She was both a great talker and -- less well-known -- a great listener. I first spoke to Pauline when she called a mutual friend with whom I happened to be collaborating on some humor pieces. I was living in L.A. and was in his apartment at the time. She asked him to put me on the phone. Pauline and I hit it off right away. We were both Californians, and also Western cowgirls-at-heart who deeply loved the arts. 

When, in the fall of 1983, I met her in person, she stared up at me. At 6'0", I was a foot taller than Pauline. She gasped, “Oh, my. You have John Wayne legs.” She meant it as a compliment. I think part of why Pauline liked hanging out with me was my height. If ever anyone should have been six feet tall, it was Pauline. She was an Amazon trapped in a tiny spark plug of a grandmother’s body. I always suspected that she felt vicariously tall when we walked together.

Soon I started writing on my own, and she generously gave a humor piece of mine to Daniel Menaker, her former editor at The New Yorker. I owe my first solo sale to Pauline. I soon learned that I wasn't the only writer she'd helped, not by a long shot. Pauline was easily the most generous major writer I’ve ever met. Not only that but her magnanimity was unadorned with the kind of ceremony most celebrated intellectuals demand. If indeed they actually do anything for younger aspirants, it’s usually just to grant them an opportunity to worship. Pauline didn’t simply help writers get published, she loaned money to those who were struggling, handed out lots of advice, picked up checks at restaurants and listened to endless tales of publishing woes. I think she had a deep feeling that an arts person had to give more to the field than she got from it. Only in that way would the arts really have a chance to flourish.

I also learned I was one of the few young writers who became friendly with Pauline without having been a devotee beforehand. Even though I’d loved movies since I was a kid, and despite her public eminence at the time, Pauline wasn’t one the critics I followed regularly. Instead, when I wanted a blast of thinking about the movies I turned to Manny Farber’s criticism in places like Film Comment and Artforum.

So when Pauline and I started talking about movies, she and I often differed. We'd sit at opposite ends of her long sofa in the dark and cozy, high-ceilinged living room of her Victorian house in Great Barrington, Mass., and free-associate. That was another California-ism we shared: a love of meandering conversation. We'd toss around ideas and opinions and let our minds venture onto subjects other than movies.

We'd talk for hours. A recent transplant to New York City, I was hurt the first time someone snapped at me, "Could you just finish one of your damn sentences?" East Coasters seemed to expect speakers to have a point. But, although super-articulate herself, Pauline was very sweet and accepting of my tendency to let my sentences trail off. 

She was also more tolerant of my opinions than I was of hers. I had a hard time forgiving her for not loving one of my favorite films, George Axelrod’s satire about Southern California and ‘60s teen beach movies, “Lord Love a Duck.” I loved “Dirty Harry” and Clint Eastwood in it; I was a fan of early Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Pauline would mutter “Oh, oh, oh” when I raved about some film or performer she couldn’t stand. Sometimes she’d give me an impatient “Oh, honey!” and roll her eyes. Particularly hard for her to understand was why I saw profundity in the Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk. She really peered at me through those big eyeglasses of hers over that one. Most of the time, though, she drew me out and was eager to hear why I liked something she didn’t. She'd never talk about it, but one thing Pauline radiated was a conviction that being a writer isn't just about carefully crafting your words. It's about being part of -- and contributing to -- the artistic community. And Pauline, contrary to the impression some people had of her, would never have wanted everyone in the artistic community to agree with her.

As we talked in the winter, snow and ice would pile up outside her house. In the summer, mosquitos would hover outside her screen door as evening approached. The sun would set and she'd say, "Pol, would you mind turning on a little light?" I'd get up and switch on one of her Tiffany lamps. "That's nice," she'd happily murmur. Pauline didn't just have strong reactions to films: she reacted fully to what each moment brought her. ("Ghastly" was one of her favorite things to utter when she didn't like something or someone.) Then we'd talk some more.

To read the full essay, click here.

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