Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Seasonal Eats

Winter Squash Soup
Pork Chops with Ginger Carrot Sauce
Harvard Beets

Now, see, here's why I find it so hard to imagine going to the nouveau farming lifestyle (other than the compelling fact that I suck at it). How the hell could I continue to eat this well? Well, tonight's dinner might have made the grade. Presumably, I'd have grown bushels of leeks, fennel, and root vegetables and would have made a year's worth of stock six weeks ago or so and frozen it (or else most of the veggies would have kept at least till now--we've already stipulated access to refrigeration--and even my herbs are hanging on out there), and it's traditional hog-butcherin' time--don't want to keep 'em fat through the winter, after all--which we'll celebrate with some choice cuts. I don't know where you get fresh ginger in the historical reenactment.

If you're going to make a savory vegetable soup, it is imperative that you use a tasty vegetable stock. I haven't figured out a veggie stock that works without the combination of leeks, fennel, and turnip, so I call each of those ingredients non-negotiable too. I generally eyeball the amounts, but you do have to be careful about adding too much turnip. Surely you had some delicious broth on hand, but just in case, I added the recipe I use. Someday, I'll figure out what do do with the veggie mush that comes out at the end, which is not untasty. (Maybe make a puree?)

The pork chop is a tweaked up version of an old magazine recipe I found. I am pretty sure that today's issue would call the sauce a puree instead, which the teevee suggests is trendy to serve (so I think we can safely assume that the foodie fashion world has in fact already moved on). My only issue with this meal is that the sauce resembles the soup in texture and color. I think if I make it again, I'll make it mashed potato consistency and put the meat on top, just like they would on Top Chef.

As for the Harvard beets, Mom sent up a bagful of roots, and hey, I'm in Massachusetts. (Did you know that Hahhhvid is a wealthy town in central Mass as well as a prestigious university fifty miles away?) I am sure you remember the slimy, rubbery cubes that got slopped onto your lunch tray by some gruff, hair-netted, cigarette-reeking crone every Thursday, and you know what? Fuck you, I love them. The beets are fresh, they add a nice color contrast, and the flavors fit in perfectly. Plus, of course, they are deadly serious. I served up the beets and a generously sauced chop on a plate, and garnished with a little bit of orange zest (which ties the flavors up beautifully, but matches the color of the sauce, which definitely means puree underneath next time.) A tiny dollop of cream or a wilted sage leaf probably would have been nice to dress up the soup, but the kids were getting antsy.

Winter Squash Soup
Vegetable stock:
about 3/4 cup vegetable oil (my wife swears canola makes it foul; I obey)
2 lb. carrots, diced
2 lb. celery, diced (can that be right? seems like a lot)
1 lb. leeks, diced (use the whole thing--be sure to cut lengthwise and clean out the sand first)
6-8 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 fennel bulb, diced (I chuck in the tops too)
4 oz. turnip, diced (maybe 1 baseball sized one)
about 1.5 cups white wine
2 bay leaves
good handful of fresh thyme
small handful of fresh parsley (or use a bunch of stems, you cheapskate)
water to two gallons (uh, I think that's the size of my pot)

I actually divide the vegetables into two pots, and saute them in oil with a little salt to help them sweat, stirring now and then, until they are really soft and there's some sticky light brown on the bottom of the pan (that's why I start a bigger batch in two pots). Add the wine to deglaze the pan(s), and then add the water, more salt, and other herbs (now I combine them, because what the hell, I've taken up enough space) and simmer for an hour or so, and strain. Make sure there's enough salt. Freeze what you don't use.

Winter Squash Soup
(makes maybe three quarts)
-2 butternut squash (or whichever), peeled and roughly cubed
-2 leeks (just the white/light green sections--I bought too many for the stock and they're like $2.50 a pound!)
-butter, maybe three tablespoons
-1 or two large apples, peeled and cored
-decent-sized handful of fresh sage
salt and pepper to taste.

In a large saucepan, saute the leeks in butter until they're nicely golden, add the apple and sage and saute until the apple is soft. Add the squash and a few cups of stock, and cover and simmer till the squash is soft. Then dump the whole thing into a blender, with more stock as needed to get the texture you like. Return to the pot (with more stock if the blender got too full) and season with salt and pepper. I made it Sunday, and it was still delicious tonight.

Pork Chop with Ginger Carrot Sauce
(or you know, ginger carrot puree)
-1 lb. carrots, cut up
-1/3 cup cream (Really? What would happen if I used half a cup? This ain't baking.)
-about a tablespoon fresh minced ginger
-a couple tablespoons honey
-ground coriander (I buy the seeds in bulk and use a little coffee grinder)
-four pork chops (The number for Chateau Keifus. We actually have a meat guy, where we can get slightly better steaks, but I think he has a similar distributor as the supermarket)
-veg. oil.

Boil the carrots, covered, for half an hour with a little bit of salt. Then into the blender with them, along with the cream, honey and ginger, and add enough of the cooking liquid to blend to the texture you like and season.

For the chops, rub on salt pepper and ground coriander, and just fry in the pan. Easy peasy.

Harvard Beets
(Shut up, that's why)
beets, enough to make about three cups when cubed
1/3 cup sugar (1/3 comes from Mom's recipe, I'd restate my aversion to odd fractions, but the beets are already pretty sweet, and lets not get carried away)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup vinegar
about 2 tablespoons butter ("Mounting in butter." Um...yeah.)

Cook those nice seasonal beets whole, until tender, and cool a little. The skins come off easily when they are cooked. Do that, and slice into a pleasing aspect ratio that doesn't remind you of middle school. In a saucepan, stir in the sugar, cornstarch, salt and vinegar. Heat over medium until it thickens, then add the beets and the butter.

Hunker down. It's a long time till spring.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Rat Race, Lap 36

[Update: that's Borlaug with a B.]

I am sure I was responding to movie ads, but at eleven years old (even more than now), a book was the ideal vehicle to develop the conspiratorial air that this story about rats promised (and delivered). The technological life that the former lab rats managed to pull off was almost as cool as the lair that the three investigators carved out of the heart of the junkyard, and as a quiet kid I really identified with the idea of creating your own advanced space amid the hustle and bustle of a world that was a lot bigger than I was, and although the refugees from NIMH were still bound by their rat natures, scavengers, they were human enough, perfectly allegorical little creatures. I remember that I liked the mordant jokes they told Mrs. Frisby about the so-called rat race, but the philosophical bludgeon bounced harmlessly off of that fifth grader, who was far more impressed by the clever doodads. ("Yeah Nicodemus, but vacuum cleaners work better than brooms!") I was horrified that the rats' plan, the solution to their precarious technological existence, wasn't to better outwit the human threat, but to haul off and start an agricultural commune and leave behind the coolest fort ever. "Fuck that noise," I thought (at eleven, using the equivalent language), "Jenner's got it right." I can't say I experienced very many you-must-be-an-engineer moments as a boy but that was one of them.

Grow plants and live outdoors, or better living through technology? I just read, in a blog that will make the sidebar just as soon as I can be bothered to update it, that the cheese has once again left the can: the world has lost one of the architects the green revolution. Norman VBorlaug was a seminal (so to speak) inventor, creating some high-yield strains of wheat, and advocated scientific advancement as a means to solve world hunger, and counteract the looming threat of deforestation. It's bittersweet, of course, considering that getting more yield per acre just got us less arable acres, and his strains also assumed infinite resource availability, unable to propagate at that capacity without massive infusions of irrigation and petrochemicals, and there was the unfortunate side effect of doubling up the worlds population, getting millions or billions scythe-ready for when the oil-based feedstock gets scarce. I've aired out my difficulties with the slow-motion pileup of demographics, resource management, science and macroeconomics at tedious length (I'll spare you the links this time), and if I'm about manifestoed out, well, here I am again. The verdict on the species hasn't much changed: (respectively) two guilties, one hung jury, and one twelfth angry man trying to talk fast. Improving crop yields was the right idea, but it wasn't thought through very well in terms of the other three items. Rats!

When I was eleven, my family lived pretty close (excepting the citrus and other odds and ends) to switters' proposal. Mom helped out the farmer up the street and bought us fresh milk and meat only from animals with names, sometimes one creature at a time. She gardened for (negligible) profit and canned, raised chickens, belonged to a natural food co-op (which even in the early 80s meant bulk cheese and all sorts of nasty whole grain products). Unfortunately for the Borlaug on my right shoulder, I know what real food tastes like. For the green angel on my left, it sure looked like a lot of work. I don't know how much the local fresh food helped my family stay frugal, really. My parents got less thrifty once we kids got older and my mother got back into the regular workforce, and it's contributed to the impression that living cheaply but well was easier even 25 years ago. Most of those old farms are now housing developments for a reason, and there's big open spaces only in the communities that are filthy rich enough to afford it, at least around here.

And freeze, okay? I've been stalling right at this point for a couple of days, and not just because it's hard to anything new to say on this subject. I keep finding my own experience inadequate to describe what I'm feeling about this, and generalizations keep coming out, boring and poorly supported, like angry student polemics. I've got my own fantasies about reducing my grid presence, and I've been focusing a lot on the tyranny of employment, debt, and society in recent reading. But I can't let it go that the modern labor economy is only a hundred fifty years old. Getting on the grid was a huge societal advance. The heavily subsidized (thinking of home mortgage discounts, lucrative development incentives, employer-based health insurance, artifically cheap central food production) worker/consumer economy has stabilized pretty well to a customary inequality (despite a few hard-fought and/or fortuitous historical windows), but agrarian America fostered no shortage of inequality in its day--not the best time to be a woman, for one non-trivial example, or black, or in debt, or seasonally employed--and was its own environmental clusterfuck, for that matter, even when there was an order of magnitude less people. Are we going to start cutting all the economic breaks to landowners (again)? Going back would be a catastrophe too.

The optimist's future of food, energy, and technology really has to thread the needle. It trends both toward more local production, and also toward greater integration. Some of this kind of organization will be inevitable if energy prices climb enough, nickel and diming our way into enough energy to power vital services, and being as independent as we can, optimizing the available space, maybe even make it sustainable for more than 40 or 50 years, doing our best with the existing Imperial vias, but there's no guarantee it'll be better. The best case will take no small amount of engineering miracles, and large-scale state or economic power will have to be less convenient, so, you know, good luck with that. But when it comes to the rats' dillemma, I still reject it as a false equivalency (convenient for me, since I posed it): science and technology is only what we have learned and what we have learned to do, and we ignore that knowledge, or apply it, at our peril. There is a future for innovation, probably even in agriculture, but if it's to keep working for very long (and it probably isn't), it'll have to keep local ecosystems in mind.

See what I mean about unsatisfying polemic? This sucks. Let's return to the inadequacy of anecdote, see if I can avoid going full retard David Brooks on y'all.

Those farmers I knew growing up didn't seem to live a simple life: uncomplicated, yes, in ways I don't love, but difficult, and I've seen a lot of them ultimately, and depressingly, fail. But as I think through more recent experiences, I can spot agrarian lifestyles working in better harmony with the consumer universe, and I have to tell you, they look a lot more satisfying to me: I've got a few personal stories, some of which I've already burned through, of western MA cheese, western CT farms, eating in the North Fork, connections to a local orchard/restaurant, and the mixed blessing of living a year in an attempted suburban reproduction of rural Italy (let's say I loved the idea, but it was hard to be a renter there), and while all of these things needed the local economy to really stay alive, not all of them were wealthy, and each one basically worked. I mean, there's no reason any other rat couldn't support a few food animals and some useful greenery. Maybe there's hope for compromise somewhere in there, if you're brave enough to demand one, or can afford it, or it becomes necessary.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

On the Use and Abuse of History

Even scientists making "scientific" observations know that what they see will be affected by their position.
It's a minor excerpt from Howard Zinn's book Declarations of Independence that I am currently reading (extending the political theme--sorry), which questions the content and purpose of American ideology. Now, this is an opinion I support in principle, but since he's an influential academic, and treading this close to my own thoughts, I'm going to hold his words to a higher standard than, say, rock lyrics. I've been getting stuck on the details of his argument a lot. The reading of Heisenberg wasn't relevant to very much, but it's symptomatic of Zinn's early discussion--something is askew with the presentation of how ideology works.

Here is part of the Richard Feynman passage I mentioned before, concerning measurement and cheap philosophy. (It's long, even chopped up):
So the fact that "things depend upon your frame of reference" is supposed to have had a profound effect on modern thought. One might well wonder why, because, after all, that certainly cannot have been necessary to go to all the trouble of the physical relativity theory in order to discover it…. [C]ertainly there must be deeper things in the theory of relativity that just this simple remark that "A person looks different from the front than from the back." Of course relativity is deeper than this, because we can make definite predictions with it. It certainly would be rather remarkable if we could predict the behavior of nature from such a simple observation alone.

There is another school of philosophers who feel very uncomfortable about the theory of relativity, which asserts that we cannot determine our absolute velocity without looking at something outside, and who would say, "It is obvious that one cannot measure his velocity without looking outside. It is self-evident that it is meaningless to talk about the velocity of a thing without looking outside; the physicists are rather stupid for having thought otherwise, but it has just dawned on them that this is the case. If only we philosophers had realized what the problems were that the physicists had, we could have decided immediately by brainwork that it is impossible to to tell how fast one is moving without looking outside, and we could have made an enormous contribution to physics." These philosophers are always with us, struggling in the periphery to try to tell us something, but they never really understand the subtleties and depths of the problem.

Our inability to detect absolute motion is a result of experiment and not a result of plain thought….Now is it absolutely, definitely, philosophically necessary that one should not be able to tell how fast he is moving without looking outside? One of the consequences of the relativity was the development of a philosophy which said, "You can only define what you can measure! Since it is self-evident that one cannot measure a velocity without seeing what he is measuring it relative to, therefore it is clear that there is no meaning to absolute velocity. The physicists should have realized that they can talk only about what they can measure." But that is the whole problem: whether or not one can define absolute velocity is the same as the problem of whether or not one can detect in an experiment, without looking outside, whether he is moving. In other words, whether or not a thing is measurable is not something to be decided a priori by thought alone, but something that can be decided only by experiment….

[I]f we have a set of "strange ideas," such as that time goes slower when one moves, and so forth, whether we like them or do not like them is an irrelevant question. The only relevant question is whether the ideas are consistent with what is found experimentally.
This, incidentally, is exactly the point where what seemed a fine idea for a post just wanders off somewhere, digressing itself down the precipitous road of closely-related philosophical terminology. Modern versions of empiricism or realism did struggle to work Einstein in there, but the summary that "of course you can only define what you can measure" is certainly older than that. (It's hard for me to believe that, whatever interesting reducionist attempts were made in the field over the years, that any practical person thought that rationalism or empiricism had to be an either/or proposition.) I'll echo Feynman's view that measurement is really the trump card in all this (even if we can reason beyond measurement and observe things we haven't yet deduced) and that at some level, it's synonymous with composing a question. Certainly without measurements and their consequences no one would have ever got to relativity. I'd love to believe, like Feynman, that the underlying philosophy isn't especially relevant, except here I am, treading ignorantly up against it once more. If it comes down to admitting stuff, I accept a physical reality that is independent from our mind and only somewhat like our perceptions (even though mind circumscribes our understanding of reality), and I believe that mathematics (and scientific theory) is merely descriptive, that it exists only in a medium, and is not otherwise a reality itself, even though the deductive power is amazingly rich, and speculation on where they diverge can be interesting as hell. Is there a school of philosophy that fits that in? Is it worth it to find out the history of my viewpoint? I am not sure what debt Feynman's essential modern "scientific realism" owed to the shoulders of earlier philosophers either.

I do like mashing up unrelated disciplines to see how the analogies hold--I'd better, given what I'm doing here--but like I said, the quick aside into physics didn't strengthen Howard Zinn's point very much here, and it constitutes the kind of thinking that could get the physicist into the posthumous whirligig dealie.

Everything humans undertake can be described as having a basis in some underlying idea, even when we don't care to spend a lot of time acknowledging them. (Even the notion that we don't behave as if governed by philosophical constructs is a philosophical construct, if you know what I mean.) Zinn clearly intends "ideology" as an external set of ideas, some governing set of philosophical principle that pushes society along (and I agree that the ideas can be sicker than they first look). The vernacular usually sets the ideologue in the realm of pure and simplified thought, well apart from the realist (and Zinn follows this too, a bit haphazardly), with the difference that, while realism is technically an ideology, it requires evidence to validate itself. Declarations of Independence is observational, but it calls for a new prescription, a new ideology.

Human behavior is different than physics, in that what they believe can influence the outcome, or, at least, that's the hypothesis. It's also different in that models of human behavior--even the phenomenological ones--are only accurate in the broad-brush and general-trends sense, as any of the generations of economists can tell you. History, by definition, is the data, even if we tend to be selective in what pieces of it we choose to measure. (The difference between the overview and the lives people must live is important, but it has a lot to do with why tend to ignore the little guy in historical contexts. Zinn's genius is to measure history based on the lives that more people have experienced.) On skimming the historical evidence, I'd say that actual human behavior suggests that the effects of ideology are actually fairly limited, and people tend to revert to some level of short-range decency among those with whom we identify, and a threshold for opportunism that drops as we migrate from the inner circle. I lean to a more anthropological explanation of human behavior, I guess.

Zinn spends more than a chapter complaining about Niccolò Machiavelli's ideology, and his take is infuriating. Mac didn't say that "the ends justifies the means," he said that leaders are only judged by the ends, which is important if you're trying to dissect his philosophy. Zinn could have emphasized that he thought Machiavelli was wrong, or that his advice was amoral, or that he was a woeful product of his times, or that his advice was so obviously self-serving. (I'd add that it may well have been a little subversive too.) There's a world of difference between following his advice (there, the discussion is good), and following his practice. Machiavelli may or may not have been a monster, but he was a scientist, not an ideologue. He was basing his views on measurement.

Take it away, Dr. F.:
What, then, are the philosophic influence of the theory of relativity? If we limit ourselves to influences in the sense of what kind of new ideas and suggestions are made to the physicist by the principle of relativity, we could describe some of them as follows. The first discovery is, essentially, that even those ideas which have been held for a very long time and which have been very accurately verified might be wrong. It was a shocking discover, of course, that Newton's laws are wrong, after all the years in which they seemed to be accurate. Of course it is clear, not that the experiments were wrong, but that they were done over only a limited range of velocities, so small that the relativistic effects would not have been evident. But nevertheless, we now have a much more humble point of view of our physical laws--everything can be wrong.
And here's the thing. History has shown a large diversity of human behavior, including drastic changes in how we behave, sometimes, amazingly, within a just a couple generations (agriculture, travel, communication). The aggregate behavior seems to be a response to environment, of which the pervading ideas and knowledge--not sure if we call that ideology--are only only a part. (I mean, I may seem like a reasonable guy, but you should see me when I run out of beer.) While history might exhibit observable large-scale patterns, and while our nature can't be too distinct from what it was 30000 years ago, we've messed with the environment significantly. Some of the effects of this we can predict (and it ain't looking too rosy), but as we move at new velocities, let's keep measuring.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Review: Our Country, by Michael Barone

Our Country (full title: Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan) is a survey of American political history. This is different than one of your usual histories, which might more strongly stress the sequences of large-scale events, or which might suggest windows into the minds of the decision-makers or even of the poor bastards that are stuck living under them. And it's not as if those viewpoints aren't worked into Our Country, but the here the emphasis is different, something more like modern political reporting than analysis of causes and plot. It sketches out voting blocs and census demographics and the newer science of polling. The heroes are senators, decision makers, and the drama is the campaign trail, the political debate, and the swings of public opinion. It is 60 years of American politics as written by the US News and World Report editorial staff (no coincidence). It is history as written by political reporters, with the notable exception that Michael Barone, in advance of cable television news, actually had to learn to read.

And there is some service in calling out the supporting players in more detail than we casual information consumers usually remember. I recognize a number of journalist tricks, for example the tendency to offer quick physical and personality sketches, as well as notecard-level issue summaries, to shortcut our engagement to the somewhat protean characters of legislators, and he does manage to paint the ability to get anything done in those chambers as a noble undertaking. And I did appreciate that, he fleshed these things out competently. The tricks of making campaigns come alive--defining electoral factions and pitting them against one another, dramatizing defining moments--are old hat by now (the book was written in 1990), and overplayed, but are generally successful, even if no human being could keep that stuff compelling for 670 pages. Barone clearly loves the political process, and clearly respects those who devote their lives to engage in it, loves the ones who are good at it, even those outside of his ideology. It makes him a sick fuck, of course, but a species of sick fuck that we all know well enough.

[There were a few interesting things I picked up, reading in the summer of 2009. His statements that neither California's Proposition 13 nor Reagan's (don't) tax and (military) spend policies had any negative consequences were a bit premature, as was his denial that Medicare created a constituency. His characterization of Dallas in LBJ's time, how badly staged protest helped get Johnson a senate seat struck unfortunate parallels to today's clumsy and vocal dissent. I was impressed (again) by the consistency in the pattern of 20th century conflicts, starting with covert actions and a defense sector build-up. And highlighting those particular sixty years made the national economic trajectory look a lot less impressive, the entire arc of industrialization, where blue collar became white collar became dual-income became service, started to look uncomfortably bubbilicious.]

Barone makes an effort to inform us of his conservativism, which appears closer to your uncle's conservatism than that of national movementarians. He interjects more than a few comments on "big government" and supports some level foreign policy aggression, but other than that, he's no more racist or sexist, for example, than any mainstream commentator, occasionally douchey for his lack of empathy, but supportive of civil rights in a general sense. His brand of conservativism is an affirmation that the usual story is the right one. (And maybe if there's anything more manipulative going on under the surface, there might be a grand unified theory in there of Reagan-style optimism in the works, one which could include the Gipper's youthful support for FDR.) He comes out early with a handful of conservative-ish theses: stating that "big government" is bad, except when it's not (usually it's bad when foolish liberals think the government is the solution to all their problems), and that social division was more important than economic politics, except when it wasn't (like in the 1930s, or the 1950s, 70s, or 80s). These views are not supported generally by the force of argument, and within the text are often contradicted within paragraphs. For example, when he drags out that social division point, he doesn't mention the economic factors that are complicit in that increasingly politicized social chasm, and for war, he's pretty selective about its big-government economics (although he's at least smart enough to recognize war as an effective stimulus, clearly preferring the blank-checks-to-private-contractors sort of approach). He cites economic tax policy a lot, especially while winding into the later part of the century, which hardly supports the non-economic divisions he mentions.

If you read this book looking for objectionable details, then you'll fill up pages of notes (and I did), but he's got a couple things in favor of his approach: (1) they're generally presented as clauses that introduce or close an otherwise uncontroversially factual sentence, and since they're minor, and largely irrelevant, they're easy to ignore--there is more data and accounts than there is opinion--and (2) they're not much supported by the text anyway. A history of campaigns and legislation isn't exactly the strongest venue in which to develop a pointed political philosophy.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Oversized, Overpriced, and Crappy

One of the problems with being an occasional blogger instead of an occasional poster or commenter is that I need to sustain my own level of output. If nothing gets posted for a week or two, then the place doesn't go on without me. Any previously tempted reader (I kid) will simply wander away for lack of activity. Anyway, it's not a political post, even if you could parse the title that way with depressing ease. There's enough of that coming down the pipe in the form of book reviews (one turgid and one fervid), and I'm not exactly the rare writer that rises above being a bore about that sort of thing. So as I try to procrastinate my way through another rough month, are there some fallback Keifus posts I can depend on here: Recipes? Kids? Mediocre science writing? Home improvement? Colorful complaints? The last two, let's go with that.

I don't know if mentioned it in these pages, but in the last couple of years, my darling wife has re-educated herself (over-re-educated herself really), and worked her way into a new career, which, by all evidence, she thoroughly enjoys, at least for these first few months. If I don't say it enough, then let it be known--she has impressed the hell out of me. Now that we have more income, as well as less frustrating time to spend it (the mythical black positively looms), we're re-evaluating the pointlessly expensive home projects we've been putting off for seven years, things like a working drier (which could have easily paid for itself by now), replacing the tattered and filthy carpets that came with the place, replacing the kitchen chairs with ones that aren't broken and downsizing the table to one that actually fits in the room.

Pity the poor furniture shopper that doesn't live in a McMansion! All of our choices over the years have been made to creatively optimize comfort in a small space, having quickly found the overstuffed sectional with the built-in recliners and a pull-out drink holder (what a fucking mistake that thing was) isn't really designed to be tucked into a corner, or even to occupy a mere wall, or even to leave room for thoughtless family members, those who occasionally choose to disrespect the mighty altar of sedentariness, to perform the profane act of opening the door and walking out into the air. For a springy monster like that to fit, it either has to be the center of attention, or your living room has to be the size of a cathedral. And it's all like this. I want to fit a hypothetical new kitchen/dining table into a finite oblong space, but even the so-called pub tables you can buy demand to be massive centerpieces, only tall enough for a barstool. Yes, you can buy small items that are cut-rate in quality, but I want something to at least survive the kids here, without devolving immediately either into trailer-park chic or tasteless excess. The woes of the petite bourgeoisie, lemme tellya. I don't know how the city folk do it. Probably with less whining.

And let's not pretend the quality gap isn't intentional. I've lamented(in media now buried and forgotten) the extra engineering that it takes make lower-priced bathroom fixtures stay ugly, but that's mostly because it's a tube of metal without many moving parts. When there are obvious pathways to chintz, they're rarely left unexplored, even in the suspiciously sparse land of mid-level pricing. Home Depot, I want to point out, is the undisputed king of the shitty middle. Their basic hardware doesn't deviate very far from the standard (understandable enough, given the piece of the retail market they occupy), but it's the suite of more aesthetic and individual products--carpets, lighting, cabinetry, things like that--that carries that special vibe of inferiority about it. A knock in quality, but at all of the price. Even a hack like me can spot it a mile away. Back when my buddy Jay bought his suburban palace, I could identify every fixture and accent as a Depot special--it screamed. (He has since made a lot of subtle improvements that have classed the place up immensely. The fact that it's far better than my mashed-thumb, bent-nail masterpieces is only partly because he has better tools, space to work, and can sometimes afford contractors.) You will never, ever get a deal on anything at Home Depot, and its semi-exclusive product lines makes it very difficult to shop around if you do find something you like (except maybe at Lowe's, which is close enough to exactly the same to not really matter).

About four years ago, I tiled my kitchen, and it's finally looking like we can afford something comparable on the adjoining living room side, get rid of the ancient doggie damage at long last, and just in time for our own dog. We're planning on wood or laminate (i.e., fake wood) floors for the purpose, because it matches our general style (if you can call it that), and because while they might wear (or fade), I've been looking at stained carpet for altogether too long.

Flooring is an excellent window into pricing and quality standards of retail outlets. We were lured down to one discount flooring place, naturally enough, by $0.79/square foot laminate, which would have been all right as far as the thickness and durability went (sinking too much quality in this place is folly, and at that price we could just replace it in five or ten years), if it didn't look so godawful fake. There were about six samples below $3, two of which were the ludicrous choice of unfinished pine, and a big cluster of okay material between $3 and $4, before heading right off into exclusively furnishing the loathed hautes.

It turned out that matching the tile while not shrinking and darkening the bedrooms was a more difficult task than expected. (Dark wood would look great against light tile, but...) Nothing fit the bill at Discount Floors, but, God help me, the Depot had the perfect pattern. The pricing for flooring at Home Depot is, roughly, $1, $3, or $5-7 per square foot, with striking differences in quality. That rare match was a Pergo brand product, but made by subcontractors in some factory in Croatia, only for the store chain, and not exactly finding rave reviews online. Even at three bucks, I'd rather get wood, or at least get some known product that I could shop around for and compare. As it is, it looks like I'll hold out against my home improvement nemesis for just a little while longer.