The IBM ThinkPad T30 was the premier business laptop of 2002 – 2004. It was sturdy, had a 14″ screen, and an Intel Pentium 4 CPU which, at the time, was pretty fast. I found one in at my Mother in-law’s old house back in 2020. It’s been sitting on a shelf turned off ever since.
I didn’t really know what to do with a Windows XP laptop in 2022. It seemed risky even to plug an ethernet cable into it. I considered trying to run Windows 7 on it, but that seemed silly, too. Enter this past winter: Frustrated by the network load that internet ads put on an already-strained DSL connection up north, I moved my Raspberry Pi Zero W there and configured it as a Pi-hole: A network wide ad and spam blocker that intercepts DNS requests for certain domains and sends them to a black hole called 0.0.0.0.
One of my soft new year’s resolutions for this year was, to borrow a phrase from Dan Pashman: read more and read more better. By that I mean: I wanted to read some of those books that have been sitting on the shelf, read new stuff, and read all of it with more care an intention. To that end, a few reflections:
Beloved, Toni Morrison
I read a book this year that’s been sitting on our shelves for years. It’s a modern day classic, part of the canon — to the extent I believe in such a thing. It being so well known, and well discussed in 2021, I knew quite a bit about the story going in: I knew it was a ghost story, haunted by deceased people as well as the history of the scene and characters. I managed to avoid spoilers, though this is the kind of book that, even if you know the most important details, the author’s choices in how to reveal them cannot be spoiled.
The book felt like a holding pattern, circling our destination, anticipating arrival, and growing gradually more concerned about what awaits you. Occasionally, we dive down into a scene, meet characters, get to know them better, and understand their motivations. All the while feeling a sinister subtext lurking around the corner. It all comes together suddenly and you nosedive. Their terrors become your own. It’s a slow burning horror story with shifting stakes and sympathies. Absolutely unlike any other book I’ve read.
I started reading this book around the time when it started to appear on banned book lists from GOP politicians. I definitely understand why this book makes people feel uncomfortable, but that’s no reason to ban it — or any book for that matter. It’s a book just as important as others common to the high school curriculum (or at least the library). It’s certainly more prescient and as much deserving of our youth — if not more — compared to books in high school curriculum: Rebecca, The Great Gatsby, All Quiet on the Western Front, Siddartha, etc. The drive to ban this book is rooted in racism and fear, nothing else.
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
This book was a striking representation of slavery as an institution and a lived experience. I think more so than any novel I’ve read before, it drives home exactly how slavery was institutionalized, and how it compromised every decision made throughout the country. Whitehead does this without any zero sum cynicism. Every character has clear motivations, details rooted in history, and every one of them are trapped in the grips of slavery in one way or another.
Whitehead shows how slavery and racism evolved together as the protagonist encounters the highly variable local laws and customs pertaining to runaway slaves, and how she manages to survive being Black in places where it is all but illegal. The idea of the Underground Railroad being a literal network of subterranean trains becomes an interesting device to illustrate the phenomenon of hasty migration under life-threatening duress, and the work required to protect and endure living along the way.
So, two for two where I’m years late to the party what’s next?
A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
This book has been stalking me on our book shelf probably since it came out in 2011. I’d pick it up, read a couple chapters, then I’d get distracted by something like moving or travel, forget about it, and put it back on the shelf. Repeat that every couple of years for the last 10 and you basically have my relationship with this book.
Finally, in 2021, I got a chance to start and finish it. I’m really glad I did because it’s a lovely book, more than worthy of all the awards it won. It’s funny, stylistically interesting, and incredibly prescient. If you haven’t read it yet, grab a copy, get cozy, drink it in, and don’t spend too much time trying to reverse engineer Egan’s process for carefully stitching this book together. It’s a well crafted work of art we should all cherish.
After the Rain, Nnedi Okorafor (adapted as a graphic novel by John Jennings and David Brame)
Finally, a book published in 2021! This was the first graphic novel that arrived as part of a subscription from Lion’s Tooth in Milwaukee Danielle gave me for Christmas 2020. I believe it was the second graphic novel I’ve read, Watchmen being the first. This book demonstrates the lengths our pasts will go to haunt us. In some cases, it’ll go as far as hunting us down when we least expect it, trap us in its grips, and force us to reconcile.
It’s also a cross-cultural novel. Choima, our main character, is Nigerian-American and encounters these ghosts of her past in the US while visiting family in Nigeria. In some ways, After the Rain reminded me of Americanah, Chimanada Ngozi Adiche’s 2013 novel. It’s themes of migration and cultural code switching are similar, but the specificity of this story and the constraints of the medium allowed this story to be concise, precise, and just as consuming as a conventional (all-text?) novel would.
The illustrators, John Jennings and David Brame, were as new to me as the format but their resumes are well established. Their art complemented the text by adding a layer of complexity to the story and helping the reader understand Choima deeper and entrench sympathy for her.
Real Life, Brandon Taylor
Brandon Taylor didn’t write this book for me. He certainly didn’t write this book to end up on my list but here it is. I picked this book up by chance. We were in Salida, Colorado. I finished the book I brought along for the trip, and wandered into Book Haven looking for something to read. Taylor’s book was displayed on the new fiction table, saw the Booker Prize nomination, endorsements from Roxane Gay and Kiese Laymon, and picked it up.
I find myself thinking about this book constantly, months after I read it. As a white person somewhat familiar with largely-white academic and work settings, I often reflect on people like Wallace that I knew: how and when I behaved like almost every white person he encounters, and how I played into traps of erasure of a lot of Black and Brown students on my own campuses. In that regard, it was a sobering story.
This book challenges literary expectations of what kind of story can be told centered around a university campus. It’s not a coming of age story. Neither is it High Adventures in Partying and Mischief. Those are present but so is existential danger, trauma, sexuality, power, money, and meritocratic politics far more dominate in student life. And there’s real academic work happening in the background! Taylor dedicates significant effort toward showing the work Wallace does as a graduate student, and how brutally offensive neoliberal belittlement feels.
Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong
Something I think about a lot from our time living abroad is how I and my colleagues treated our young students at our academy. I remember one teacher in particular who shared a group of students with me. Our five through ten year-old students were tracked into levels based on their performance on a monthly standardized test in English.
We taught the lowest-scoring first graders together. He, and other teachers, would regularly call these children as idiots and worse epithets I won’t write here. Sometimes I still find myself asking these English teachers: How fucking fluent were you in a foreign language at the age of six?
Hong covers a lot of ground over a moving, precise, and pithy 224 pages including education, intersectionality, erasure of the voices and lives of Asian American people, and the harms of Western colonialism that continue to this day.
The Waiting, Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
There’s a certain kind of graphic novel that jumps out at me off the shelves at Lion’s Tooth, begging (daring) me to read it. The Waiting was one of them. This novel is drawn entirely in black and white, a choice on the author’s part that focused my attention on the character’s faces throughout the novel.
It’s a book set during the Korean War about a family marching south to seek safety. Ultimately, Gwija, the main character, ends up in Busan and the book is also about her clinging to hope that one day she might reunite with her family members who separated during the exodus.
Both Gendry-Kim and Cathy Park Hong want their readers to understand a fuller history of the Korean War. Perhaps the biggest myth is that the US forces were entirely on the side of the Korean people and without sin. The Waiting shows a throng of refugees taking shelter during an American bombing raid. Anybody out walking around in North Korea were assumed enemies and fair targets. In reality, they were refugees carrying whatever they could with them and their families to flee the war raining down upon them. People unaware of or disconnected from the global scope and details of the battle over their peninsula.
I remember coverage of the Inter-Korean family reunions while were in Korea. The stories we heard focused on the emotional meeting of people separated by decades and political stalemate. The format of a novel allows Gendry-Kim to go further, to help her readers understand the innate cruelty of separation, and how anguish collides with hope that you’ll see your child, spouse, sibling, aunt, etc. one more time before you die. The Waiting captures the perils and anxieties of separation-by-conflict and how people cope and thrive while they wait for relief.
I read a lot more books in 2021, after a few years of reading maybe one or two books a year. One thing that helped was not trying to read all the books. And instead, trying to read a diversity of books: Diversity in authorship, format, form, genre kept the reading interesting and helped me change modes after reading something particularly heavy or difficult. Graphic novels were a nice addition in this way. I can stay and linger on a scene in a graphic novel in a way you can’t in a text. I can examine the drawings closely, or hold the book at arms length and take in a spread, to better understand the author’s intent and the text’s deeper hermeneutics.
It’s funny how working outside your own kitchen can throw me off just a little bit. Tools aren’t where you expect them to be. The refrigerator is plenty cold but somehow the butter feels not chilled enough. I’m cutting in the butter but it doesn’t look right. The oven is hot enough but it feels like the pie is taking too long. It’s all in my head and it’s just enough to yield unexpected results.
For Thanksgiving this year we were at Nancy’s new house here in Milwaukee. Of course, László woke up Thursday morning with croup, which threw us all off and scrambling the day of and sent me to the hospital’s pharmacy to pick up his medication. Once we were set and cooking, we constructed a pretty excellent meal for the four of us.
From my last post, I tried the steeping method of infusing cinnamon flavor into the pie filling and I was not disappointed with the results. For whatever reason my crust did not want to come together, nor roll out, nor bake fully on the bottom. Still, we had a good pie.
The pie was not the highlight of my baking this year. (I know, the title, bear with me.) It was Struffoli, a Neapolitan dessert involving deep fried dough balls, cooled and soaked in honey, nonpareils, almonds and dried fruit. This was much easier than expected to throw together, though it did take some time. Cook’s Illustrated (which is apparently my only cook book these days) has a great recipe.
If the dessert sounds decadent it’s because it very much is. For being deep fried, you might expect them to taste like doughnuts, but the texture we achieved was more like tiny bites of biscotti. A puffed, sweet, crunch that left us going back for more. A nice thing about them is they’re tiny so you can just grab one. And then grab another one. Then another one. Then why not three or four. OK maybe just one more. OK, this is the last one now.
If I have one addition to the recipe notes to use a light colored honey. Since honeys can taste different depending on what kind of flowers the bees were munching on, a mix of honeys could be a nice experiment. Light color is key, though, if only to make the plate more attractive and give it a bright and inviting look. It’s also possible a lighter color honey would help gauge whether it’s hot and cooked enough before dumping the dough in to coat them. I’d also use the trick in the comments to use a glass to help shape the wreath and avoid a big pool of honey in the middle of the plate. All that said, this is a keeper I’m excited to try again.
The method for these was pretty simple, but the dish was nonetheless complicated and time consuming. The dough is almost like a cake: flour, baking powder, sugar, butter. You ball up the dough and divide it roughly into six equal parts. With a scale and a ruler, I might have achieved a bit more uniformity, but I didn’t have either and the higgledy piggledy result added an extra element of fun. Divide the six dough pieces into (about) 60 each and you quickly have a pile of more than 300 balls of dough ready for frying.
The dough balls took a bit longer to fry than I expected — about 3 minutes or more to get a nice golden brown color — and I was a little worried I’d over done it. Trust the color, not your internal clock, and you’ll have good results. I didn’t time it, but I’d guess the 2 hours + 20 minutes of cooling is about right.
Next up: More pumpkin and Christmas bakes. Hopefully this time around my crust comes together a bit better.
We had a crop of pumpkins surprise us in the yard this summer. Most of them, somewhat inconveniently, grew under the Whitespire Birch tree we planted last year. This made finding the pumpkins an interesting game, and we had to improvise a trellis to keep the vines off the grass so the pumpkins wouldn’t rot.
Matt Taibbi has an article in the latest issue of Rolling Stone called Forgiving Student Debt Alone Won’t Fix the Crisis. It’s a good argument that doesn’t get enough attention. Every semester that clicks by is another semester where thousands of students are issued loans to cover tuition, books, materials, and living expenses at colleges both expensive and affordable.
I agree with Taibbi and so many others that total or partial student loan forgiveness is a good idea. Where Taibbi’s article doesn’t go, and to his point politicians don’t either, is into what could be done to provide long term solutions. Here’s a short list of things that I, a lay-person who has learned a lot about this stuff, can think of that might help:
Cut interest rates. Interest rates are set by Congress. The lowest interest rate for undergraduate student loans is about the same as a mortgage right now, but the interest rates for some loans are much higher. If Congress can set interest rates they can also cap them at some arbitrary rate. They could even set rates to 0.0% for some loans!
Increase funding for non-loan aid mechanisms. I worked through college including a work study job that paid minimum wage and only allowed 20 hours per week. That was barely enough to cover meals in the cafeteria let alone cover room and board or any appreciable amount of tuition. Congress could dramatically expand this program if they wanted to, maybe ED could do it without them, I’m not a lawyer so I’m not sure.
Limit balance growth to a certain percentage of the principle. If your on a long enough deferment, you can end up with more balance than you started with. This happened to me. I overpaid my loans while we were teaching in Korea, then went on deferment while in Hungary and couldn’t afford them. The result? My loan balance was just as high at the end of two years as it was when I left school.
Set automatic cancelation for all borrowers regardless of payment plan or job and incentivize on time payments by moving that date up. If you paid your loans on time for 15 years, your balance is forgiven, no matter what payment plan, or how many deferments or forbearance. If you missed 1 to 5 payments in that 15 years, it’s 20 years. Something like that.
Simplify the PSLF and other existing programs. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is way too complicated. It’s not “10 years” as advertised, it’s 120 on time payments on a qualifying payment plan. If you’re off one of those plans for a month, but still make a payment, it won’t count toward PSLF.
Limit the total amount the can be borrowed.
Give students amortization schedules and other tools to simulate the effects of switching jobs or payment plans. It’s very hard to get a straight answer about when the 20 year loan forgiveness date hits, and what you have to do to qualify for it.
Allow students to chose their own loan servicer.
Set up federal refinancing programs to allow borrowers in good standing an opportunity to cut interest rates in the future. There’s currently no way to refinance a loan short of taking it private.
Allow student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy.
Increase the amount of student loan interest payments that can be written off on income taxes. Currently you can write off 100% of interest paid on a mortgage but for student loans, there’s a limit of $2,500. I don’t know for sure, but I’m willing to guess most borrowers pay more than that in interest during the first years of repayment when their earnings are lower and their principal is higher. Since the interest payment is going to the government, that’s ostensibly a double tax on low income earners. This one feels like a no-brainer to me! I bet we could even get Ted “HULK SMASH TAXES” Cruz on board with this one.
Again, these are just twelve ideas I could come up with by thinking about this for like half an hour. I’m sure they’re expensive but I’m also certain these would work toward changing the federal loan program away from being a predatory regime rigged against the borrower.