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LBJ vs. Reacher

September 11, 2012 Leave a comment

What to do? What to do?

I knew this collision was coming, and here it is. No sooner do I start reading the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography, The Passage of Power (as described here) than Lee Child’s 17th Jack Reacher thriller, A Wanted Man, comes out. Two great authors, perhaps the greatest writers of biography and thriller of our time. And two characters of awesome will.

I have been making good progress through The Passage of Power. When we got off the plane in Seattle last night, I was three-fourths of the way through, having finished Caro’s riveting account of the week that began on November 21, 1963, in San Antonio. So many extraordinary moments. Caro’s depiction of LBJ’s instant transformation from powerless and humiliated vice-president to a president with utter calm and clarity about the steps that must be taken on domestic and foreign fronts is a mini-thriller in its own right.

Yet, Child is the master of the thriller. His books are irresistible. I know that if I allow myself to read even one page of A Wanted Man, I won’t stop. And I do know how the LBJ story turns out. For the most part. But I have no idea what’s next for Reacher.

I’m being pulled. Perhaps I should give in.

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Categories: Books

Company of the Cauldron

September 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Two days ago, as we were about to depart from Nantucket, I wrote about our dinner last Friday at Ventuno. The next night we ate at Company of the Cauldron, which is just around the corner. It is equally deserving of a post.

I explained last year that despite walking past regularly on previous visits, I was never curious to try it. Something about the darkened room, the odd name, the people crowded together in the small space enjoying themselves too much. And the nightly fixed menu, everyone arriving at the same time and eating the same meal, one I feared might not suit my taste.

Truth is, the fixed menu issue isn’t a big deal. They post the menu for the coming week each Friday, online and onsite. No surprises. Gail insisted last year that we try it, and when we did I wrote, “Why oh why did we wait so long to eat there?” We didn’t wait so long again. I grabbed a printed copy of the menu as we were walking by last week and we decided to spend our last evening of this year’s stay there.

This time, I was facing into the room rather than the wall, allowing me to get a much better sense of just how beautifully furnished that dark room is. Fortunately, I don’t have to work too hard to capture it in words. I can turn to Malcolm Wilson, restaurant reviewer for Cape Cod Times, who is quoted at the restaurant website.

This little Nantucket restaurant has charm written all over it — from its dark red, ivy-framed, single-story front, pierced by small-paned windows, to its darkly handsome, romantic-as-a-novel interior.

The inside’s post-and-beam and rough plaster construction seems more like a stage set than interior design. And careful decoration gives Company of the Cauldron one of the prettiest dining rooms around.

Copper pans hang on the walls, along with a full-rigged half model ship. Pie-plate sconces are set with flickering candles, and, overhead, there are pierced antique tin lanterns and large, gracefully curved chandeliers for soft lighting.

Antique ship paintings on the walls and boat models hanging from the ceilings seem secure in their antiquity. Tables are covered with flowered cloths, and there are real candles in brass holders and tea roses in vases.

In addition to the candle sconces and the hanging fixtures, each table has its own candle, providing enchanting, more than sufficient lighting of food and companions. As for the name, the website provides the explanation:

Lorenzo The Magnificent, born April 8, 1449, died April 9, 1492 was one of the leaders of the Republic of Florence, and went on to become the most important Medici of the Italian Renaissance. While better known for his political achievements, his interests included gastronomy. Waverley Root tells us that the first cooking academy since Roman times was established in Florence. It was called the Company of the Cauldron; each member had to create a new dish for every meeting. Lorenzo supposedly composed songs honoring the chefs and olive oil makers.

Here is the menu for the dinner we had:

Jumbo lump crab cake with a chard corn salad, basil and tomatoes.

Twin tournedos of tenderloin with two sauces: green peppercorn au poivre and red onion demi over citrus thyme, fingerling potatoes.

Vanilla bean panna cotta with cassis and passion fruit curd and shortbread crumble.

Especially noteworthy is the high quality of all ingredients. The corn salad was stunning. I could have made a meal of it alone. Every little morsel was special. Likewise, the beef was as fine as any I can remember having in a long time. As for the panna cotta, there must have been a last-minute change. We had lemon curd, with some other fruit flavor, some berry. I can’t remember. No matter. I couldn’t have been happier. I just wish we didn’t have to wait so long for our next visit.

Categories: Restaurants, Travel

Polite Pinkerton Agents of Education Reform

September 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Pinkerton agents escorting strikebreakers, Buchtel, Ohio, 1884

It has become popular to blame teachers and their unions for the failures of our urban public schools, and to propose solutions that amount to privatizing the schools. The horrors of socialism; the wonders of capitalism. There’s no problem too big for the market to solve. Health care. Social security. Education. Just let the invisible hand of the free market do its magic.

As a counterpoint, we can turn to the series of articles Diane Ravitch has been writing for The New York Review of Books recently. I quoted from one in a post last May. Here’s a passage from another.

The current reform movement in education has embraced Teach for America and privately managed charter schools as remedies for the nation’s schools. But this combination is unlikely to succeed because one alienates career educators and the other destabilizes our public education system. It is hard to imagine improving the schools without the support and trust of the people who work in them every day.

[snip]

The problems of American education are not unsolvable, but the remedies must be rooted in reality. Schools are crucial institutions in our society and teachers can make a huge difference in changing children’s lives, but schools and teachers alone cannot cure the ills of an unequal and stratified society. Every testing program—whether the SAT, the ACT, or state and national tests—demonstrates that low scores are strongly correlated to poverty. On the SAT, for example, students from the most affluent families have the highest scores, and children from the poorest families have the lowest scores. Children need better schools, and they also need health clinics, high-quality early childhood education, arts programs, after-school activities, safe neighborhoods, and basic economic security. To the extent that we reduce poverty, we will improve student achievement.

A few weeks ago, I spent most of a day at a small conference of science teachers and science educators from around the state. When I speak of science teachers, I don’t mean just secondary science teachers. Elementary teachers, after all, teach science, and may be the most important teachers of science, since they have the responsibility of introducing our youngest students to the subject as an exciting way to think, do, discover.

By the end of the day, I was in awe of these teachers’ commitment, creativity, and energy in the face of the daily difficulties imposed by an underfunded system. Several were elementary teachers here in Seattle. One was told she couldn’t use water this summer on the school garden she had set up. Another — who had no experience teaching science when he was hired a couple of decades ago as the ESL instructor at a high school in a small community in the eastern part of the state — learned on arrival that he was to teach his non-English-speaking students science as well as English and other subjects. (And, of course, it was suggested to him that these would be low-performing students.) With help from professional science educators here at the university, he was soon teaching such a successful course that the native-English-speaking students wanted to get in.

I know. Anecdotes aren’t worth much. We need test scores and all that. I simply want to point out that I’ve encountered many wonderful teachers who deserve all the support we can give them, plus our respect.

Which brings me to Rebecca Mead’s commentary at The New Yorker blog today on the Chicago school teachers’ strike, from which I’ve stolen the title of this post. Perhaps I should explain that the Pinkerton agency got its start in the 1850s. By the end of the century, its agents had become synonymous with union-busting. I close with an excerpt:

Not long ago, I ran into someone I’d not seen for a while, who moves in moneyed circles in New York. We started chatting about the usual things—kids, schools—and she told me she’d been consumed lately with political work, raising money for candidates nationwide who were committed to breaking teachers’ unions. She said this with the same kind of social enthusiasm with which she might have recommended a new Zumba class, or passed on the name of a place to get really great birthday cakes.

[snip]

One problem with Chicago’s schools—like schools in urban centers all over this country—is that their constituents, the students, suffer from the usual hindrances of poverty: having no place at home to study; having no support at home for studying; sometimes having no home at all. Another problem is that talk of breaking teachers’ unions has become common parlance among the kind of people whose kids do not live below the poverty line, polite Pinkerton agents of education reform, circling at cocktail parties. No doubt there are some lousy teachers in Chicago, as there are everywhere. But blaming teachers for the failure of schools is like blaming doctors for the diseases they are seeking to treat.

Categories: Education, Labor, Language