Farwell, Normal Park

If you had asked me last May if Annette and I were moving this year, I would have probably shrugged and said “I don’t think so, but we’ll move eventually.” I certainly didn’t think “eventually” would be now. And I also didn’t think we’d be moving out of a house built in the 1950s in a long established, funky, and all around lovely neighborhood to a newly built house in a brand new suburban subdivision blank slate of not quite yet a neighborhood.  I’m as surprised as anyone about this.

We have lived in this house in Normal Park for 25 years. When we bought it in 1999, it was a two bedroom/one bathroom house built in 1953 with a full attic which had never been finished. We thought we’d stay here until it was time for Will to go to grade school, in part because we fantasized about the perfect place in Ann Arbor, maybe in Burns Park or within walking distance of downtown. Well, we couldn’t afford anything like that, and after living here for five years, we liked the neighborhood. So we remodeled things. We redid the attic, adding a main bedroom, a full bathroom, and a loft space I use as an office area. We eventually also remodeled the kitchen and the bathrooms, along with fixing up a ton of other things. But we still thought about moving a few times, once when Will made the transition to middle school, and again six or seven years ago when Will was almost done with college. We even went to look at a house that was in Ann Arbor (albeit not close to downtown) and it was more or less in our budget. But as we talked about it, both of us felt like it just wasn’t worth the hassle of moving out of a house that we still loved. Plus we had paid off the mortgage, so why give that up?

 

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In other words, we have been thinking about moving since we moved here, actually, but things got real this summer for basically two reasons. First, it’s a hot “seller’s market” around here, and that is especially true for this neighborhood. But second and more important, we’re getting kind of old– I turned 58 this past March and Annette will turn 60 this coming November. Our parents came to visit us at different times last summer, and while they’re all fairly mobile for folks in their late 70s and early 80s, they had some challenges navigating just the stairs in and out of the house– never mind about trying to go to the second floor or the basement. That’s no a problem for us now, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see a future when it will be, and that’s especially true when doing things like hauling laundry up two flights from the basement. Besides, if we don’t take the plunge to do this now, our next move will be to “the home.”

So we started looking and thinking about moving more seriously, and, long story a bit shorter, we landed on new construction in a subdivision of similar homes sort of in suburban no man’s land. It is still an Ypsilanti address but in Pittsfield Township near where Michigan Avenue and US 23 meet. The only usual places we go around town that will be further away from where we are right now is EMU, which means we won’t be able to walk to work anymore. This sub is a far cry from those fantasies of living in a more tony Ann Arbor neighborhood, but that’s just not realistic or as important as it once was for us. Besides the fact that we simply cannot afford to live in anything bigger than a two bedroom condo within walking distances of downtown, we’d still have to drive around a lot no matter where we lived. And after living here for 25 years, now we want to live more in-between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti because there’s a lot of cool stuff in Ypsi too.

 

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The new house is gonna be great. It lacks a lot of the charm and character of this house, sure, but one of the nice things about a new house is everything is, well, new. There’s a connected two car garage, a big “open concept” kitchen/dining area/living room, the laundry and the main bedroom are on the ground floor, we’ll each of a home office space, and really nice deck off the back door. I’m really looking forward to it.

But I am going to miss this neighborhood.

I never got involved in any of the neighborhood association things and I recognize my neighbors but I don’t know them. We don’t really “hang out” with any of our neighbors. But there’s a nice mix of people here, older folks (like us now!) who have been here for decades and people with little kids just starting out, far from all white people, lots of teachers, nurses, librarians, and EMU and UM professors and staff.

We live– or soon once lived– on Wallace Boulevard, which is one of the main streets through the neighborhood. Our new house is on a cul de sac that backs up to some woods, and that will be nice but in a very different way. Here there’s a steady stream of people of all sorts entertaining me as I look out the kitchen window while doing dishes or whatever– lots of people just walking or pushing strollers or riding bikes, but there’s always something new. Just the other day, I saw a group of four or five people each carrying a part of what looked like a full dining room set. A while back, I saw a grown man driving a fully motorized and adult-sized “Big Wheel” style bike/trike down the street, I presume some kind of DIY project.

I’ll miss what Halloween is like around here. People take Halloween decorating serious around here, and we got hundreds of trick or treaters every year, more than that when the weather was nice. I typically bought three or four giant bags of candy from Costco, and we went through all of it most years. It was a walking party for a lot of folks, young parents drinking beers while watching their kids, and the neighborhood also welcomes lots and lots of kids and parents from all over town, especially folks from apartments or neighborhoods where there aren’t a lot of other trick or treating opportunities.

And then there’s the big neighborhood yard sale, which this year is going to be June 1. It’s dozens and dozens of yard sales, some big and some small, some of them happen every year. It’s another good chance to get out and walk around the neighborhood, find some bargains, sell some old things, etc. By the way, one of the reasons why we’re staying here until the second weekend in June is so we can participate in this year’s sale– we’ve got a lot of stuff to sell!

We’re not going to have any of that in this new subdivision, at least not for a while. Then again, who knows what will happen in the time we’re there and beyond. The other day on the Normal Park Facebook Group, someone posted this image of when this neighborhood was a blank slate, farmland being turned into a subdivision:

I think this house is about where it says 22 on this map. And tickets to the World’s Fair, too!

So farewell, though not really goodbye. I’ll still come by once in a while to see how things are going.

Thinking about Bill HD: Friendship Memories, Momento Mori

My friend Bill Hart Davidson died suddenly on April 23, 2024 of a heart attack while on a run after work. He was 53. Here’s a link to the obituary.

Annette and I (along with Steve Benninghoff– unfortunately, his wife was out of town) went up to The Compound for a dinner party the Saturday before. We’ve gotten together like this many times for the last 20 years, and often, there is some kind of activity or game. This time, Bill and Leslie asked us all to put together powerpoint presentations that are funny, interesting, and/or entertaining. Mine was about our new house. It was pretty lame because I was too busy trying to finish the grading for the winter semester. Annette, similarly busy but with her book, did a presentation about why The Big Lebowski is a perfect movie (totally agree). Benninghoff talked about some genealogy research he’s been doing about his family and some lost history going back to the Civil War, a presentation that ended with a sampling of scotch. Leslie and Bill were much more prepared. Leslie had a great talk about Betty Crocker (I think she’s doing some research for another cookbook sort of project), and Bill’s bit, complete with his bass for demonstration purposes, was about the similarities and differences between beat and rhythm. He won the prize for “most likely to do a TED talk.”

A good time was had by one and all, we talked about how Annette and I will have to host the next one of these get-togethers this summer once we move into our new place, and we all went home. Then we get a call from Benninghoff Monday night; he had gotten a call from Leslie that Bill had collapsed while on a run, and he was pronounced dead the next day.

It’s a lot to process, and so this is definitely very rambling and more personal I suppose than most of what I post here, and ultimately less about Bill than it is about memory and death and friendship. FWIW.

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Oh-Oh-Oh, Oprah! (and Zepbound, Month 2)

Before I get to Oprah (and I intended that headline be sung to the tune of “Oh-oh-oh, Ozempic!”): my second month on Zepbound has been disappointing. In the first month, I lost a little over seven pounds on the “starter” dose of 2.5 mg weekly. Like all the other similar weight loss injectables on the market, the dose increases (with Zepbound, every month) until you reach the maximum dose (in this case 15 mg). So given that I lost about seven pounds with the lowest dose of this stuff, I assumed I’d continue to lose at about the same rate.

Well, not so much; instead, I stalled. My weight jumped around a bit so that at one point this past month, I was down another two pounds (for a total of nine), then I ended up gaining a pound or two, then losing again, etc. A month later, I’m where I was after month one. This is a bummer, especially since there are are lots of people in Reddit forums and the like posting about losing 20 pounds in the first month or two. Of course, besides the fact that the anonymous posts in discussion boards aren’t exactly peer reviewed, it seems like a lot of the people claiming these huge losses also have a lot more weight to lose.

But there is some good news. For one thing, I’ve got a long ways to go to get to the maximum dose– or whatever dose I land on as being the right dose. In the discussions, a lot of people talk about staying on a lower dose than longer, and that’s especially true for folks who have had a hard time with the side effects. Plus I’ve stalled but not bounced back up to where I started, which was what usually happens when I try to just “diet and exercise.” So I’m looking forward to see what happens when I ramp up from 5 mg to 7.5 mg.

Anyway, about Oprah:

As was reported in numerous sources the other day, O and Weight Watchers have decided to part ways. The New York Times (like this story) and similar outlets reported this was an “amicable” split. “‘Her decision was not the result of any disagreement with the company on any matter relating to the company’s operations, policies or practices,’ WeightWatchers said in the filing.” Also, she’s not profiting from selling her stock: “The company said in the statement that Ms. Winfrey would donate the value of her holdings in WeightWatchers to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington in part to ‘eliminate any perceived conflict of interest around her taking weight loss medications.'” In other words, the story that both Oprah and Weight Watchers want to tell is this is just one of those things, we’re all happy about this, let’s let bygones be bygones, etc.

This could all very well be true. But it doesn’t take much picking at this to make me think this isn’t the whole story.

I have some personal experience with Weight Watchers, believe it or not. I can’t remember exactly when this was (maybe the late 2000s? the early 2010s?), but for about three or four years, I was a dues-paying member. I joined up with Annette, who, maybe 35 years ago and before we met, was on Weight Watchers and successfully reached her goal weight– which is to say it did work for her, at least at one point. The whole premise and purpose of Weight Watchers back then was quite straight-forward: eat less and maybe kinda/sorta exercise. The support meetings were mostly people talking about the challenges of dieting, along with celebrating the successes that some folks had, and perhaps a little shaming for the folks who weren’t as successful. For me, it didn’t work because success on Weight Watchers (at least back then) hinged on fastidiously keeping track of everything you ate with a system of points, and I’m just too lazy to do that. I’m pretty sure that when I stopped going to meetings, I was at the same weight as when I started.

Like I said, I don’t remember exactly when this was, but I do know it was before 2015. That’s when Oprah bought a 10% stake in what was already becoming a less profitable company. Her investment got her a seat on the board, and she became the primary public face/spokesperson for the company. That’s also when Weight Watchers started to rebrand itself as the more abstract WW. Instead of being all in on limiting calories, WW tried to pivot become a more “body positivity/acceptance” and healthy lifestyle kind of enterprise. They focused a lot more on exercise, a new line of WW cook books and new recipes (remember cauliflower crust pizza?) and food products, and more emphasis on apps for tracking food and online discussions, and a lot less emphasis on f2f meetings. For a while, this seemed to help the company. According to this May 2018 article in Money, Oprah’s $43.5 million investment ballooned quickly to more than $400 million. Sometime in 2018, she sold $110 million worth of her stock, and she also donated to her charitable foundation another $22.6 million from stock.

There’s nothing wrong with someone making a lot of money from what turned out to be a smart investment, so kudos to Oprah, at least back in 2018. But after reaching a high price mark of $101 a share in June 2018, the stock fell to $17.70 a share in April 2019. WW shares bounced up and down like a yo-yo dieter for a few years until falling even further by 2022. The day after Oprah announced she and WW were parting ways, the stock was $3.30 a share. In other words, that donation to eliminate any “perceived conflict of interest around her taking weight loss medications” is just a tax write-off.

Oprah has also significantly changed her story about weight loss medications. Back in September 2023, Oprah hosted a panel discussion for Oprah Daily (which is a subscription-based website of all things O) called “The Life You Want Class: The State of Weight.” It featured Oprah and a panel of experts on obesity and weight loss, and for the most part, the emphasis was on characterizing obesity as a disease, not about “willpower” per say, and also on body acceptance. But as People reported back then, when the discussion turned to Ozempic and similar drugs, Oprah was resistant:

“Shouldn’t we all just be more accepting of whatever body you choose to be in? That should be your choice,” Winfrey said during the panel. “Even when I first started hearing about the weight loss drugs, at the same time I was going through knee surgery, and I felt, ‘I’ve got to do this on my own.’ Because if I take the drug, that’s the easy way out.'”

In the same discussion, Oprah went on to explain that when she had surgery on both of her knees, she specifically decided against using any weight loss drugs, instead sticking to diet and a lot of hiking as exercise. It’s worth noting that as soon as Oprah said the drugs were the “easy way out,” the other panel members jumped in to emphasize that we need to think of obesity as a disease, it’s not about willpower, and so forth.

Still, the “mixed messages” from Oprah was problematic, particularly in terms of Weight Watchers’ (oops, I mean WW’s) efforts to get into the semaglutide and tirzepatide business themselves. As this little video snippet from Yahoo! finance makes clear, the only positive moment in Weight Watcher’s stock price in the previous year was the announcement that they were going to start offering these meds along with diet, exercise, and lifestyle. So for the company’s most famous stake holder, board member, spokesperson, and (for many WW customers) most inspirational persona to be skeptical of these new drugs was not the company line.

The other thing is Oprah was pretty explicit at this event that she had not herself taken Ozempic or similar drugs. As recent as early November, the “secret” to Oprah’s latest weight loss was being reported as being about following the WW diet and exercise. But by December, Oprah admitted she had been using these meds, but she still has not said what drug she’s been taking and when she started taking these drugs, and she describes the meds as weight “management” (rather than a weight loss) tool.

I have no doubt that Oprah did lose a lot of weight with the dieting and exercise she did after her knee surgeries a couple years ago. But I also have to think that she started whatever drug she’s on earlier than November– maybe even while she was claiming that taking a drug was the easy way out. In the stories back in December— when she first revealed she had been taking meds– she spoke about how she had “released the shame about it.” I suppose that means the shame of being overweight in the first place, but I also wonder if she was “releasing shame” about lying about being on these drugs.

I suppose Oprah had to bail on WW in part because of the story of her own weight gains and losses– an aspect of her celebrity image she’s cultivated for decades. After resisting them, Oprah seems to now recognize that these drugs do make a difference that simply cannot be matched by diet and exercise alone. That’s a pretty big shift from the story she’s been selling with WW as the weight loss plan where you can eat what you want and not being on a diet, including eating lots of bread.

But ultimately, business is business. Oprah cashed out of WW a long time ago, and at this stage, she’s leaving a sinking ship.

Zepbound, Month 1

A while  back, a Facebook “friend” (which is to say not so much a friend friend, but someone I know well enough from the academic world that I’ll talk with when I see him in person at a conference or something every few years) posted that he needed to lose 40 pounds and he was looking for suggestions. A lot of folks posted a lot of ideas, some of whom were also “friends” from academia who are very fit and athletic, competing in marathons and the like. All the advice boiled down to diet and exercise.

“Wait, in order to lose weight, I should eat less and exercise!?! Why, I never thought of that!” said every fat person in the world in their most sarcastic “this is just the way I talk” voice.

I wrote “Here’s what will be an unpopular suggestion: try drugs.” Which is what I’m currently doing.

Let me back up a bit:

I’m fat. I am not so fat that I need the seat belt expander on an airplane or I need to go to a special store to buy clothes, but I’m right on the edge of that level of fat. I should lose more than 40 pounds. To the extent that a Body Mass Index number matters, mine is in the high 30s. This puts me in the category of not just “obese” but on the edge of “morbidly obese.” It’s been like this for a long time.

I have of course tried many different diets and approaches, including Weight Watchers for a few years, but nothing has worked for long. For quite a while now, I’ve been completely locked into the same weight, plus or minus about 5 pounds: I’ll try something new and lose a bit, then plateau, and then gain it back. This has happened again and again and again.

So I gave up, and instead I try my best to be the healthiest fat person I can be. I go to the gym a few times a week, I try to eat mostly healthy foods (though I often fail), I stay on top of my various numbers with regular doctor visits, and I live with it. And for the most part, I’m at peace with that: I’ve been at least “overweight” since I was a kid so it’s not that big of a deal.

Still, I know I need to lose weight. After all, it is called morbid obesity.

About this time last year, I started hearing and reading things about Ozemspic, Wegovy, and similar drugs. The piece that peaked my interest most was Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker March 2023 article “Will the Ozemspic Era Change Howe We Thing About Being Fat and Being Thin?” Specifically, it was this paragraph:

The drugs mimic a hormone called glucagon-like peptide-1, which stimulates insulin production and suppresses the production of glucagon, which raises blood sugar. The body naturally releases GLP-1 after a meal, and the hormone travels to the brain, triggering the feeling of fullness. GLP-1 drugs effectively inject that sense of satiety, and also slow the rate at which food empties out of the stomach; patients generally report a freedom from cravings and an inability to overeat without becoming ill. “I’m convinced that this basically replaced a signal my body has been missing my whole life,” a commenter in a Reddit group for people using semaglutide wrote recently. “All I can say,” a member of an online group called Lose the Fat wrote, “is that it is no wonder that skinny people think heavy people have no willpower. Their brains actually do tell them to stop eating. I had no idea.”

This really really hit home for me. I remember talking about constantly feeling hungry in Weight Watcher meetings, but the only solution offered was willpower. For me, that works for a day or two, tops– thus my being stuck at my current weight for over a decade.

So when I went to see my doctor for a check-up and routine tests last spring, I said I’d like to give one of these Ozemspic-like drugs a try. Here I need to acknowledge the privilege and good luck I have in this situation. First, my doctor, who had never brought up weight loss in previous visits, said that she thought I’d be a good candidate for one of these drugs. When you look at the discussion forums about weight loss drugs, it’s easy to find someone talking about having a doctor who refused to prescribe anything. Second, I have very good health insurance through my employer that covers these drugs, with a $25 a month co-pay. There’s no way I’d pay out of pocket for this stuff because it costs around $1000 a month.

She put me on Saxenda, which is less effective than Wegovy and some of the other drugs out last year, but she said it was more available at pharmacies. Ozemspic was not an option because I’m not diabetic and she wasn’t willing to do that kind of off-label prescription– plus Ozemspic was (and I believe still is) in short supply. So after a couple of months of unfortunate events and delays (it’s a long story), I started Saxenda in late July. I was on it for about five weeks and I lost about six pounds– and then the supply dried up.

I went back to my doctor who was apologetic about the shortages, which are largely the result of the drug companies not being prepared for the enormous demand. She said that I must be disappointed, but actually, not really. Oh sure, I wish I could have continued on the meds because it was clearly working. I lost weight because I wasn’t hungry all the time, and thus I did not need to eat as much to feel full.

So for me, that experience on Saxenda was proof of concept. This shit might work for me– eventually, once the supply came back.

All through the fall and into December, I kept trying to find either Saxenda or Wegovy with no luck. Meanwhile in the fall/early winter, another one of these medications was approved by the FDA for weight loss, Zepbound. This one, which (IMO) has the best name, is similar to Eli Lilly’s diabetes drug Mounjaro, and the research I’ve seen so far suggests it’s the most effective weight loss drug like this on the market so far. On average, people on this stuff lose around 22% of their body weight within 16 months. Do the math on your weight– that’s a lot.  This perhaps explains why Zepbound is being projected to be the best selling prescription drug of all time.

Anyway, I happened to be in Costco in early January and I asked at the pharmacy if they had Wegovy or Zepbound in stock. I didn’t think they would (and they didn’t have Wegovy), but it turned out they were having no problems getting Zepbound. So I started it on January 7, and, without going into all of the details (maybe I’ll get into that in the future), so far, so good. I’m at the end of week 4 and I’ve lost about seven and a half pounds– not bad for about 30 days. I just do not feel hungry and I also don’t need to eat as much to feel full.  Plus I have now already secured another two months supply, which means I have enough to (hopefully) see some significant results.

One of the folks on that Facebook post I mentioned responded to my comment about “try drugs” by saying something like “Sure, but then you have to stay on those drugs the rest of your life.” First off, check back with me in a year or two on that. The likelihood of regaining weight is somewhat debatable, and there are maintenance levels of these drugs as well. Second, we’re just at the beginning of these medications. There are a dozen similar meds being developed, and that’s going to eventually bring down the costs and make them easier to take (potentially not as an injectable, for example). And third, the same is also true with the meds I take (along with zillions of other people, of course) for cholesterol and blood pressure– or meds for diabetes, which I am trying to avoid. The first thing my doctors told me before I started meds for blood pressure and cholesterol was “diet and exercise,” but they still prescribed drugs. And of course taking Zepbound might mean that I’ll eventually be able to get off of the other meds.

So we’ll see what happens.

 

Traveling Thoughts

Annette and I have done a lot of traveling this summer– a get away to Glen Arbor, individual travel to conferences on the west coast (mine was Computers and Writing in Davis),  and then a vacation/tour to Croatia, Slavonia, and Venice. Judging from my social media feeds, just about everyone I know was doing something similar. It was great! Though I will admit I could have done without the Covid we picked up at the tail end of our trip to Europe, but that’s a slightly different topic.

Shortly before we left on this latest trip, I read in The New Yorker Agnes Collard’s essay “The Case Agains Travel.” At first, I thought I might have been reading it wrong because travel is so popular– or at least people very commonly describe travel (along with activities like reading and walking on the beach) as something they “love” to do But no, Collard is quite earnest, though in an intentionally contrarian tone. This passage made me feel seen:

If you are inclined to dismiss this as contrarian posturing, try shifting the object of your thought from your own travel to that of others. At home or abroad, one tends to avoid “touristy” activities. “Tourism” is what we call traveling when other people are doing it. And, although people like to talk about their travels, few of us like to listen to them. Such talk resembles academic writing and reports of dreams: forms of communication driven more by the needs of the producer than the consumer.

(My apologies to my tens of social media devotees who have had to endure weeks of Instgram posts from me chronicling my journeys, though as far as I can tell, y’all have been basically posting similar pictures and stories from wherever it is you went too).

Then I heard Collard interviewed just the other day on the NPR show “Today, Explained,” and an episode available here called “Vacation… all I ever wanted?” which features a short (and more accessible) interview with Collard on her thoughts on Travel. Her part of that 30 minute show is in the second half.

She does make one point in both her essay and interview which I do agree with thoroughly: travel does not in and of itself make one “virtuous,” much in the same way that an education does not in and of itself make one “smarter.” I mean, both travel and education can help each of us become better and more virtuous people, but I’ve seen enough “ugly American” style travelers (both domestically and abroad) and also enough half-assed students to know that the benefits of travel and education depend entirely on how each of us individually process and apply those experiences.

Further, travel (and education too) is undeniably a mark of privilege in that both require time and money. Obviously, different kinds of travel require different amounts of time and money, and the tourism I’m able to do now is at least more elaborate (if not better) than what I was able to do when I was in my twenties. There’s a reason why so many people wait to go on those big European vacations until they are closer to retirement.

But mainly, I think Collard is wrong in two crucial ways.

First, she makes no distinction between the different types of travel, which for me is very problematic. In both the essay and the interview, Collard uses her own experiences of a trip to Abu Dhabi and a visit to an animal hospital caring for falcons as evidence to the empty miserableness of travel. But as she makes clear in the interview, Collard travelled to Abu Dhabi not “for fun” but for a conference– that is, for work (she’s a Philosophy professor) and not exclusively for pleasure– and she went to the falcon hospital despite the fact that she describes herself as someone who “does not like animals.” So you sign up to go to a falcon hospital? This just doesn’t make sense.

The reasons for travel define the traveler’s role. When Annette and I visit our extended families, we are not tourists, even though these trips require many hours of car or air travel and usually hotel stays and a lot of eating out. I very much enjoy spending time with parents and sisters and in-laws and the like, and I’m looking forward to upcoming trips at Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, too. But these trips are not vacations for fun; these trips are obligations. 

My work travel is probably similar to Collard’s in that it doesn’t happen that often and I can usually get some more personal pleasures out of the experience– as I did recently when I went to California. But these carved out personal times are also not the same as a vacation, and for people who have to travel a lot for work, I have to think that the distinction between different types of travel are even more stark.

In contrast, the vacation Annette and I just went on was entirely for our own pleasure and amusement. It’s different from going someplace you don’t really want to go for work (even if you do find free time to look at falcons), and it’s different from seeing your siblings and parents and the like. You’re making the trip not as a part of any responsibility or obligation; you’re making the trip because you thought it’d be fun.

Second, Collard is setting the bar way too high.  Collard borrows the definition of tourist from an academic book which describes a tourist as someone “away from home for the purpose of experiencing a change.” That strikes me more how I hear a lot of people who prefer describe themselves as “travelers.” For example, while tourists wait in line and pay a lot to ride in a gondola for 15 minutes; travelers watch and scoff. Tourists take pictures of all the major sites as proof they were there; travelers take pictures that are less identifying and more suitable for framing.

Personally, I’m a tourist. While overseas, I don’t think I have a choice since no one in any other country is going to mistake me for anything other than a dopey white American dude. I can’t pretend that I’m just hanging out in Dubrovnik at a cafe table under a giant umbrella like the locals, especially since all the locals from surrounding areas are the ones actually working in this cafe (and working in the gift shops and the Game of Thrones tours and hauling in all of the cases of wine and soft drinks and hauling away all of the empty bottles and cans).

But again, Collard wants too much from tourism. As a tourist, I do want to see and experience different things, real, (re)constructed, or even sometimes completely contrived (in the form of things like roadside tourist trap attractions), but I don’t necessarily want to change. For me, a lot of the experiences of tourism (restaurants, tours, museums, architecture, vistas, sounds, etc.) are similar to the experiences of media. I certainly have been changed as a person in small and large ways by specific books or movies or songs, but that’s not something I demand or expect every time. “That was pretty good” or “That was fun” is usually enough; even “That was weird” or “Let’s not do that again” can usually be enough. And really, it’s the broader experience with tourism (or media) and not a specific trip (or book) that changes my perspectives and experiences in the world.

Ultimately, as Collard points out in the interview, travel is fun, and (she says) she doesn’t want to talk people out of doing it. I think she just wants people to be, I don’t know, a little less smug about it. That’s cool.

The Year That Was 2022 (turning some corners?)

If 2020 was horrible and 2021 was, I don’t know, what?, then I think the best description of 2022 was “shows improvement.”

My first prediction of what was to come in 2022 (I made in that last post of 2021) turned out to be wrong: we did not go to the MLA convention in Washington, D.C. because Covid numbers (oh hi, Omicron!) were through the roof. MLA’s approach to dealing with Covid was remarkably reasonable. As I understand it (from what my wife said since she was the one participating), the conference organizers told folks if they still wanted to present f2f they could (because it was too late for MLA to cancel the whole thing), but if people wanted to present electronically and via synchronous conferencing software, then they could do that instead. All the panel chairs/organizers had to do was give the MLA a link to how they were going to do it. In my opinion, that was a smart way to schedule and adjust a conference during Covid: let presenters figure out their own synchronous conferencing software instead of putting all the presentations and materials in a junky content management system behind a firewall. I wish my field’s conferences had taken this approach. Anyway, Annette did her presentation via Zoom with a typical conference audience; D.C. would have to come later.

January was the start of Annette’s and my own faculty research fellowships, and for me, that meant doing a whole lot of interviews of folks who had earlier participated in my “Online Teaching and the ‘New Normal'” survey, which is about the experiences of teaching online during Covid. I ended up doing around 37 or so of these interviews, and I’m still trying to figure out how I’m going to analyze the pile of transcripts I’ve got. The sun rose and I took a picture. Travel included Annette going on a trip with friends to Puerto Rico and about at the same time, I went down to Orange Beach, Alabama where I met up with my parents and my sisters to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday. Movies included the kind of forgettable Midnight Alley and the rest of The Beatles documentary Get Back!

February was work stuff– interviews and also some other writing, but also working off and on on my CCCCs presentation. I had been very much looking forward to going to the f2f conference in Chicago in March 2022, but that was (prematurely and wrongly, IMO) cancelled. I continued to make bread. Did more interviews. Saw (among many other things) Licorice Pizza and The Big Lebowski for about the 90th time.

March was the CCCs Online, which was, um, unpleasant. I think this post from Mike Edwards (where he does quote me, actually) sums up things fairly well. Here’s also a link to my first and second posts about the conference. I won’t be attending this year because (for like the fifth time in a row) the theme for the conference has nothing to do with the kind of research and scholarship I do. But that’s okay. Maybe I’ll go again someday, maybe I won’t.

March also took us on the road to the Charleston, South Carolina area to do something that got us out of the too cold for at least a while. We stopped in Charleston, West Virginia on the way (gross) and then spent a night in Durham, North Carolina to catch up with Rachel and Collin and a lovely meal out at a French restaurant they like. Then we spent a week at a condo on Seabrook Island. It was a pretty good get-away: we got some work done (we both did a lot of reading and writing things), went into Charleston a couple times (meh, it was nice I guess), went on a cool plantation tour, I attended (via Zoom) a department meeting while walking on the beach one nice day, and we did have some good food here and there too. It was all nice enough and I don’t rule out going again, but it wasn’t quite our thing, I don’t think. I started working on this Computers and Composition Online article based on my online teaching survey (more on that later too). Among other things, watched Painting With John on HBO, another season of Survivor, rewatched The French Dispatch.

April and more interviewing, more working on the CCO piece, and starting to work on the Computers and Writing Conference session. I was originally going to go to that (it was in Greenville, NC), but life/home plans got in the way. So once again I was online, and also once again, it was “on demand,” which is to say that I also ended up presenting to the online equivalent of an empty room– not the first time I’ve done that, but still, a group like computers and writing should do better. I posted my “talk” here. I’m afraid I will probably not be able to be there face to face for the 2023 CWCON at UC-Irvine; that trip is still TBA, though those organizers seem more committed to hosting a viable online experience.  In April, I saw probably the best movie I’ve seen this year, Everything Everywhere All At Once, and listened to (or started listening to) a book by Johann Hari called Stolen Focus which I’m going to assign in WRTG 121 this coming winter term. Started doing yard stuff, Annette got a kayak, I baked still more bread. Oh, also saw a movie called Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway that was bonkers.

May and more interviewing, more working o the CCO piece, the CWCON 22 happened (I wasn’t as involved as much as I should have been, but I did poke around at some other “on demand” materials that were interesting), started planting stuff in the garden, started golfing some, ate a fair amount of asparagus, etc. And then at the end of the month, we went up north to stay at a fantastic house on Big Glen Lake. We were planning on going back there in 2023, but after a series of events I don’t understand (was the house sold? is there a problem with the rental company? something else?), we’re staying someplace different. Stay tuned for early June 2023. Among other things, we watched Gog.

By June, I started having some “interesting” discussions with the editors of the CCO about my article. Let’s just say that the reviewer involved in the process was “problematic” and leave it at that. Eventually, I think the editors were able to give me some good direction that helped me make this into a good piece (IMO), but it wasn’t easy. More interviews, but that was the last of them. There was more gardening, more going out for lunch while Will was visiting, more of “the work,” seeing movies, etc.

July was a lot of travel. We went to D.C.– I suppose because the trip in January was scrubbed– and then to New Haven to see Will, then to New York City via train for a couple of nights (saw our friend Annette, a kind of off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors, and went walking on the high line park and to the Whitney museum), then to Portland, Maine (only for a night– I’d go back for sure), and then to Bar Harbor and Arcadia National Park. It was a really lovely trip. I think I am more fond of the grand “road trip” than Annette is, but she played along. After the cruise (see below), I believe I have two states left on my “having at least passed through” list: Rhode Island (which I figure we can tick off the next time we go out to visit Will) and North Dakota, which might require a more purposeful trip. Among other things this month, watched at least one Vincent Price movie.

August was more travel– and getting ready to teach too. We went to Iowa to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday party, and then (of all things!) we went on a cruise to Alaska. Among the lessons learned from that trip are if you are going to take a cruise for Alaska, you need to go for longer than just the 5 nights we went. Highlights include actually touching ground in Ketchikan, Alaska (briefly) and a stop in the delightful town of Victoria, British Columbia. Then back here and getting ready for teaching again– for the first time in eight months.

September and EMU started up again– at least for about a week. Then the faculty went on strike, which was the first time that’d happened around here since 2006. I blogged about some of this back here. It was interesting being one of the old hands around here this time around. I got here in 1998, and by 2006, I think we had been on strike or close to it twice before, and the 2006 strike was “the big one.” So 16 years between strikes was a long time. It was disruptive and chaotic and frustrating, but also necessary and probably the most justifiable strike I’ve experienced, and we did end up getting a better deal than we would have otherwise. Oh, and I need to note this here (since I will someday look back at this post and go “oh yeah, that’s right!”): One of the things that really seemed to make the administration want to settle things up is that Michael Tew, who was a vice provost and one of the four or five people who run stuff at EMU, was busted for masturbating while he was driving around naked in Dearborn with all of the doors and the roof off of his Jeep. Classy. Anyway, there was teaching on either side of the few days we had off on striking, and it was kind of a rough start of the term for me. I have said and written this elsewhere: it was like getting back on a bike after having not ridden one in a long time in that I remembered how to do it, but I wasn’t quite sure how to go too fast or to turn too quickly or whatever. My students in my f2f class (first year writing) seemed to feel mostly the same way. Among other things, we watched Shakes the Clown.

A word about Covid here: by the end of the first month or so of the semester, and after a summer of travel that included a LOT of potentially infectious places like crowded museums, restaurants, planes, trains, and a cruise ship, and I still haven’t had Covid– or if I have had it, I never knew it (and that’s perhaps most likely). I’m not saying it is “over” or it’s nothing at all to worry about, and I’m fully vaxxed up (and I got a flu shot too). But for the most part, it feels like Covid is mostly over.

October was more work stuff with a trip up north in the middle of the month. It was both nice and not: “nice” because it’s always good to get-away, we caught up with friends who live up there, saw some pretty leaves, had a Chubby Mary, etc., but “not” because the hot tub at the place we rented didn’t work (and look, that was the point of renting that place) and it was cold and rainy and even snowy. And as is so often the case in Michigan, it was stunningly beautiful weather for like 10 days after our trip, both up there and down here.  Also in a note of not being over with Covid but just not worrying about it a lot anymore: Halloween was back to full-on trick or treating– no delivery tubes, for example.

November started off with politics, and that turned out great in Michigan, pretty okay everywhere else. Yeah, the Republicans didn’t do as well as they should have, but they still control the House– well, they have more votes. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of “control” in the next year or so. Lots of teaching stuff and work stuff, some pie making, and then to Iowa for the Krause Thanksgiving-Christmas get-together.

December and things got a little more interesting around here. I blogged some about ChatGPT and having my students in a class use GPT-3 for an assignment. That post got a lot of hits. If I wasn’t already kind of committed to working on the transcripts of the interviews of people teaching online during Covid, I might very well spend some time and effort on researching this stuff. It’s quite interesting, and given the completely unnecessary and goofy level of freak-out I’ve seen on social media about, it’s also necessary work. Oh, and that Computers and Composition Online article finally came out. I’ll have to read some of the other articles in this issue, too. Then the semester was over and it was time for a trip to the in-laws, who moved into a smaller place. So new adventures for them, and for us too: we stayed at a pretty nice airbnb, actually rented a car, explored new restaurants and dressy dining rooms. And still a fair amount of damage from Ian.

Well, that’s it– at least the stuff I’m willing to write down here.

Higher Education Didn’t Cause the Rise of MAGA Conservatism and It is a Major Part of the Only Possible Solution

As a college professor who also follows politics fairly closely, I’ve been noticing a lot of commentaries about how universities are making the political divide in America worse. I think that’s ridiculous (and the tl;dr version of this post is college educated people are leaving the Republican party not because college “makes” people into Democrats, but because the party has gone crazy). I guess these ideas have been in the air for a couple years now, though it’s gotten a bit more intense lately.

The version of this most in my mind now is Will Bunch’s After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics—and How to Fix It, which I finished listening to a couple ago. There’s a lot to unpack in that book about things he got right and wrong (IMO), and I completely agree with this review in The New York Times. But in broad terms, Bunch argues higher education is the primary cause of political division and the rise of “MAGA” conservatism in the United States. Universities perpetuate a rigged meritocracy, they’ve grown increasingly liberal (I guess), and they have become horrifically expensive, all of which puts college out of reach for a lot of the same working class/working poor people who show up at Trump rallies.

This kind of thing seems to be in the air nowadays. For example, there’s this recent article from New York magazine, “How the Diploma Divide Is Remaking American Politics” by Eric Levitz. There’s no question that there have been shifts in how education aligns with political parties. Levitz notes that Kennedy lost the college-educated vote by a two-to-one margin, while Biden lost the non-college-educated vote by a two-to one margin. Levitz goes on to argue, with fairly convincing evidence, that higher education as an experience does tend to present people with similar ideas and concepts about things like science, art, ethics, and the like, and those tend to be the ideas and concepts embraced by people who identify as Democrats.

Or at least identify more as Democrats now– because as both Bunch and Levitz point out, college graduates were about equally split between the two parties until about 2004. In fact, as this 2015 article from the Pew Research Center discusses, more college graduates identified as Republicans between 1992 (where the data in that article begins) and 2004. And I’m old enough to vividly remember the presidential campaign between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000 and how one of the common complaints among undecided voters was Bush and Gore held the same positions on most of the major issues. How times have changed.

Anyway, U.S. universities did not tell state legislatures and voters during the Regan administration to cut funding to what once were public universities; politicians and voters did that. Higher education did not tell corporate America that a bachelors degree should be the required credential to apply for an entry-level white collar position, even when there seems little need for that kind of credential. That standard was put in place by corporate America itself, and corporate America is lead by the same people who said we shouldn’t support higher education with taxes. In other words, the systematic defunding of public higher education has been a double-whammy on poor people. The costs of college are putting it financially out of the reach of the kinds of students who could most benefit from a degree, and at the same time, it makes it easier for parents with plenty of money to send their kids (even the ones who did poorly in high school) to college so they can go on to a nice and secure white collar job.

I’m not saying that higher education isn’t a part of the problem. It is, and by definition, granting students credentials perpetuates a division between those who have a degree and those who do not. Universities have nothing to do with company polices that require salaried employees to have a bachelors degree in something, but universities are also very happy to admit all those students who have been told their entire lives that this is the only option they have.

But the main cause of the political division in this country? I’m not even sure if it’s in the top five. For starters– and Bunch acknowledges this– the lack of decent health care and insurance are at least as responsible for the divide between Americans as anything happening in higher education. A lot of Americans have student loan debt of course, but even more have crippling medical debt. Plus our still unfair and broken health care system enables/causes political division in “spin-off” ways like deaths and ruined lives from opioids and the Covid pandemic, both of which impact people who lack a college degree and who are poor at a higher rate. Plus the lack of access to both health care and higher education for so many poor people is both a symptom and a result of an even larger cause of political division in the U.S., which is the overall gap between rich and poor.

Then there’s been the changes in manufacturing in the U.S. A lot of good factory jobs that used to employ the people Bunch talks about–including white guys with just a high school diploma who voted for Obama twice and then Trump– moved to China, and/or disappeared because of technical innovations. One particular example from Bunch’s book is of a guy who switched from an Obama voter to a wildly enthusiastic MAGA Trump-type. Bunch wants to talk about how he became disillusioned with a Democratic party catering to educated and elite voters. That’s part of it, sure, but the fact that this guy used to work for a factory that made vinyl records and music CDs probably was a more significant factor in his life. I could go on, but you get the idea.

But again, I think these arguments that higher ed has caused political polarization because there are now more Democrats with college degrees than Republicans are backwards. The reason why there are fewer Republicans with college degrees now than there used to be is because the GOP, which has been moving steadily right since Bush II, has gone completely insane under Trump.

There have been numerous examples of what I’m talking about since around 2015 or so, but we don’t need to look any further than the current events of when I’m writing this post. Paul Pelosi, who is the husband of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, was violently attacked and nearly killed by a man who broke into the Pelosi’s San Francisco home. The intruder, who is clearly deranged in a variety of different ways, appears to have been inspired to commit this attack from a variety of conspiracies popular with the MAGA hardcore, including the idea that the election was fixed and that the leaders in the Democratic party in the US are intimately involved in an international child sex ring.

US Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy condemned the attacks after they happened on Friday, but just a few days later, Republicans started to make false claims about the attack. For example, one theory has it that the guy who attacked Paul Pelosi was actually a male prostitute and it was a deal gone wrong. Others said the story just “didn’t add up,” and used it as an example of how Democrats are soft on crime. Still other Republicans– including GOP candidate for governor in Arizona Kari Lake and current Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin— made jokes about what was a violent assault on the campaign trail. And of course, Trump is fueling these wacko theories as well.

Now, I’m not saying that college graduates are “smarter” than those who don’t have college degrees, and most of us who are college graduates still have a relatively narrow amount of knowledge and expertise. But besides providing expertise that leads to professions– like being an engineer or a chemist of an elementary school teacher or a writer or whatever– higher education also provides students at least some sense of cultural norms (as Levitz argues) about things like “Democracy,” the value of science and expertise, ethics, history, and art, and it equips students with the basic critical thinking skills that allows people to be better able to spot the lies, cons, and deceptions that are at the heart of MAGA conservatism.

So right now, I think people who are registered Republicans (I’m not talking about independents who lean conservative– I’ll come back to that in a moment) basically fall into three categories. There are people who still proudly declare they are Republicans but who are also “never Trumpers,”  though never Trumpers no longer have any candidates representing their views. Then there are those Republicans who actually believe all this stuff, and I think most of these people are white men (and their families) who have a high school degree and who were working some kind of job (a factory making records, driving trucks, mining coal, etc.) that has been “taken away” from them. These people have a lot of anger and Trump taps into all that, stirs it up even more, and he enables the kind of conspiracy thinking and racism that makes people not loyal to the Republican party but loyal to Trump as a charismatic leader. It’s essentially a cult, and the cult leaders are a whole lot more culpable than the followers they brain-washed.

Then there are Republicans who know all the conspiracies about the 2020 election and everything else are just bullshit but they just “go along with it,” maybe because they still agree with most of the conservative policies and/or maybe they’re just too attached to the party leave. But at the same time, it’s hard to know what these people actually believe. Does Trump believe his own bullshit? Hard to say. How about Rudy Giuliani or Lindsey Graham or  Kevin McCarthy? Sometimes, I think they know it’s all a con, and sometimes I don’t.

Either way, that’s why college grads aren’t joining the Republican party– and actually, why membership in the Republican party as a whole has gone down, even among people without a college degree. It certainly isn’t because people like me, Democrat-voting college professors, have “indoctrinated” college students or something. Hell, as many academic-types have said long before me, I can’t even get my students to routinely read the syllabus and complete assignments correctly; you think that I have the power to convince them that the Democrats are always right? I wish!

In other words, these would-be Republicans are not becoming Democrats; rather, they are contributing the growing number of independent voters, though ones who tend to vote for Republican candidates. I’ve seen this shift in my extended family as my once Republican in-laws and such talk about how they are no longer in the party. My more conservative relatives didn’t vote for Trump in 2020 and probably won’t in 2024 either, but that doesn’t mean they are going to vote for Biden.

One last thing: I’m not going to pretend to have the answer for how we get out of the political polarization that’s going on in this country, and I have no idea how we can possibly “un-brainwash” the hardcore MAGA and Qanon-types. I think these people are a lost cause, and I don’t think any of this division is going away as long as Trump is a factor. But there is no way we are ever going to get back to something that seems like “normal” without more education, and part of that means college.

Country White Bread Made with Poolish

The other day, I baked some bread that turned out exceptionally well and I posted a couple of pictures on Instagram (and that also showed up on Facebook):

 

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A post shared by Steve Krause (@stevendkrause)

My friend Lisa asked about a recipe, and since I haven’t written/blogged about anything like that for a while, I thought I would procrastinate a bit (okay, procrastinate a lot) and write this.

Back in 2017, I wrote in some detail about my bread making ways as directed/guided by Ken Forkish’s excellent book Flour Water Salt Yeast. Sure, I have read other things about baking bread and have followed other recipes, but this is what I always go back to. It’s an extraordinarily detailed and well-written book, and considering the fact that the recipes in this book are all just variations of the same ingredients (thus the title) with slightly different techniques, I think that’s quite the accomplishment. And apparently, he has a new book coming out too.

I had been making mostly natural levain (aka sourdough) breads the last two or three years, but besides taking a few days to revive the starter and proofing, my results lately have been inconsistent and not great. Maybe I need to make some new starter. So I went back to Forkish’s book and gave the poolish recipe another try.

First things first (and this is stuff I kind of cover in the post from a few years ago):

  • This recipe makes two French “boule” style loaves of bread: round, ball-shaped loaves that are very crusty and the sort of thing that’s great for hearty sandwiches, toast, or just eating by the slice when it’s still warm. It’s not like baguette (though you can use this dough to make baguette, but that’s a different thing),and definitely not like soft sliced grocery story bread.
  • This isn’t rocket science, and if you follow the recipe closely, it will probably turn out well even if you don’t do a lot of baking. There are a lot of details here both because I had a lot of procrastinating to do, and also because I wanted to describe the steps in as much detail as possible. That said, this does take a bit of practice and your results might not be that great right out of the gate. Just keep trying.
  • The measurements matter, both in terms of ingredients but also in terms of temperatures and time. I can never get it perfect (the original recipe calls for .4 grams of yeast for the poolish, for example), but you want to get as close as you can and actually measure things. And as a tangent: that’s basically the difference between “cooking” and “baking,” as far as I can tell.
  • This does require some special equipment.
    • At a minimum, you need a kitchen scale and at least one four or five quart cast iron Dutch oven that can go into the oven at 475 degrees– so not one with a plastic knob on the top. I think the kitchen scale I’ve got cost me $10 or $20 and I use it all the time, so a very worthwhile investment. I have a fancy enameled Dutch oven I use for stews and soups and stuff, but for baking bread, I use the much less expensive, cast iron models you can get for around $50 at a hardware store (and those work just as well for stews and soups and stuff as well). Everyone who cooks regularly should have both of these things anyway. I bake bread at least once a month (and usually more), so I have two of the cast iron Dutch ovens– and as you will see with the steps below, if you bake a lot, using two instead of just one Dutch oven helps speed things up A LOT.
    • It’s helpful to have a couple of large food storage containers, too; here’s a link to what I’ve got on amazon, though I bought mine at the local Gordon Food Service store. You can just use a couple of really big bowls and some plastic wrap to cover them, but besides being  great for baking, these containers are also useful for things like brining a chicken or a turkey.
    • While not essential (and probably not something you want to spend the money on unless you want to regularly bake bread like this), a couple of wicker proofing baskets. Besides helping to create the cool texture of the finished bread, they also allow the dough to proof properly– and it’s what professional bakers use. Here’s a link to the kind of ones I have (also on amazon); I’d recommend just getting the baskets and none of the other baking doodads like a “lame” (which a French knife used to score the bread– I just use a razor blade or a sharp knife) or weird pattern molds or anything else.
    • Finally (and also all stuff in the category of you probably already have these things if you cook at all regularly), a bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients (or large food storage containers), two medium-sized bowls lined with clean tea towels for proofing each loaf (or the proofing baskets), a dough knife/board scraper, a razor blade or very sharp knife, an instant read thermometer to measure the water temperature and some very heavy-duty oven mitt or grill gloves (which is what I use) to handle the smoking hot Dutch ovens, and a cooling rack for the finished bread. Oh, also: two plastic shopping bags, or a couple of small plastic garbage bags.

Okay, with all that out of the way:

Ingredients:

For the poolish:

  • 450 grams white flour
  • 50 grams whole wheat flour
  • 1/8th teaspoon of instant dried yeast
  • 500 grams of water (a bit warm, at about 80 degrees or so)

For the final dough:

  • 450 grams white flour
  • 50 grams wheat flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon of instant dried yeast
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
  • 250 grams of water (quite warm, at about 105 degrees)

Steps:

  • You want to start with high quality flour. My go-to is King Arthur, though I also sometimes splurge on some kind of artisanal, stone-ground, small batch flours once in a while too. You can also make this with all white flour or try adding more wheat or maybe a little rye flour, but be careful about using too high of a ratio of not white flour because it can throw things off in terms of amount of water, yeast, time, etc.
  • At about 6 pm and the evening before you plan to finish and bake the bread, make the poolish. In a 6 quart tub (or a very large bowl), whisk together the flours and the yeast, and then mix in 500 grams (by weight, though volume is the same) of somewhat warm (80 degrees) water. Mix thoroughly so there are no pockets of dry flour left at all. Snap on the lid or cover snuggly in plastic wrap, and leave it out on the kitchen counter overnight.
  • At about 8 am the next morning, start to make the final dough. You have a little bit of “wiggle room” on when to start this step– a bit earlier, a bit later, etc.– but you don’t want to start much earlier than 12 hours after you started making the poolish, and not much later than about 14 hours.
  • In another larger bowl (or a 12 quart tub), whisk together the final dough flour, yeast, and salt until well-combined.
  • Measure out 250 grams of very warm/bordering on hot water, around 105 degrees. Uncover your poolish, which by now should be quite bubbly and tripled in size. Carefully pour the water around the edges of the poolish to loosen it from the container, and then poor the whole thing into the larger container where you mixed the other dry ingredients.
  • Mix this dough thoroughly. Now, Forkish goes into surprising detail about “the best” method for doing this by hand with large pinching motions, but I honestly don’t usually want to get my hands that goopy with the dough. So I just use a big metal spoon I like that keeps my hands a bit cleaner and that gets at all the dry flour bits out of the corner of the container. Mix this so there are no dry parts left and cover it back up.
  • This first proofing/resting lasts about 2 hours, though you do need to fold the dough at least twice. Again, Forkish goes into a lot of detail about what “folding” means, but what I do is lightly flour my hands and then scoop underneath the dough, folding it back over onto itself. I go all around the tub so that I’m folding/turning over the whole mess of dough so what was on the bottom is on the top. I try to do this the first time after it’s proofing/resting for about 30-45 minutes and then the second time about another 45 minutes later. After 2 or 3 hours, the dough should be more than doubled in size.
  • Next, it’s time to make the loaves. You’ll want to start this at about 10 or 10:30 am; again, there’s some wiggle room here, but it should be ready in about 2 hours and you don’t want to wait longer than 3 hours. You’ll need about 2 feet of cleared off and squeaky-clean counter space to deal with the dough; once you have that, spread a light dusting of flour onto the counter. If you don’t have wicker bread baskets, you’ll need two bowls that are each about 8 or 9 inches wide and a couple of clean tea towels. Set up your bowls/baskets first by liberally flouring the inside of them. This helps the dough to not stick, and it also gives that cool color/texture to the finished bread. Set the bowls/baskets nearby.
  • Take the lid off of the now proofed dough, flour your hands, and dump the dough out of the container and on to the floured work surface. You don’t want to add too much more flour to the dough, but you also don’t want to make it into loaves while it’s sticky. So what I tend to do is flatten the dough out into roughly a rectangle shape, add a little more flour to the top of the dough, flip it all over, and flatten it out again. You don’t really have to knead the dough much, but you do want to work it so you squeeze out some of the bigger air bubbles that will have developed.
  • Using a dough knife/bench scraper, divide the flattened out dough in half. You don’t need to obsess over it or anything, but you want to shoot for more or less equal halves. Bring the corners of each half of dough up together and form the dough into a tight ball and smooth ball. Put the rougher side/seam side of the ball in the bottom of the basket/bowl.
  • Put each basket/bowl inside a large plastic bag, making sure that the opening of the bag is bunched up/closed at the bottom. The best thing for this are the sort of plastic shopping bags you get from the drugstore or grocery store, though a (obviously clean and never used) small garbage bag works as well. These loaves will be ready for baking in about an hour.
  • Right after you bag up your bread for the final proof, put your Dutch oven(s) on the middle rack of the oven and pre-heat it to 475 degrees. You want to have the lids on too because you are preheating both the larger oven and the smaller, baking Dutch oven(s).
  • If you only have one Dutch oven, you’ll have to bake in stages. So after about 40 minutes of the oven pre-heating and the loaves sitting out on the counter for their final rise, put one of your proofing loaves into the refrigerator, still contained in that plastic bag. You’ll take it out of the fridge again after the first loaf bakes. Of course, if you have two Dutch ovens, you can bake both loaves at the same time.
  • Either way, about an hour to 90 minutes after you divided the bread up into two loaves and after the oven has been preheating with one or two Dutch ovens for at least 30 minutes and after it is indeed at 475, you’re ready to bake. This step moves kind of quickly and can be a little nerve-racking because the dough can be a little tricky to handle, and of course, the pots you’re going to cook this in are dangerously hot. But here’s what I do:
    • Put on this grill gloves or heavy-duty oven mitts, take the Dutch Oven(s) out of the oven, place them on top of the stove, and remove the lids. Take off the grill gloves.
    • Turning to the bread, take them out of their plastic bags and carefully invert the dough on to the floured counter. Using either a single razor blade or a very sharp knife, make a few scoring cuts on the top of the loaf. You can get super fancy with this or you can skip this step entirely, but I like to make two or three gashes in the top because it helps release some steam and it looks cool at the end.
    • With floured and otherwise bare hands, carefully scoop under the dough to pick up the entire loaf and then gently lower it into the waiting and ripping hot Dutch oven. Now, three important things to note. First, the dough at this point can be kind of tricky to pick up; it’s sort of like handling a half-pound blob of jello, so you kind of have to get your fingers under the loaf and cup it with your hands. Second, that pot is super-duper hot so be careful to lower the dough into the pot while not touching the pot with your bare hands! Third, don’t worry too much if the dough ends up being kind of uneven or whatever when you put it into the Dutch oven(s) because as long as it is proofed properly, it will still bake fine.
    • Put those grill gloves or oven mitts back on, put on the lid(s), and put the Dutch oven(s) back into the oven at 475. Don’t peek! Keeping the Dutch oven(s) closed for this first 30 minutes is key to a crunchy crust, and also it is what enables the “oven spring” that will cause the bread to rise and round-out further, and, unless you really fumble getting the bread into the Dutch oven(s) (it happens), this is also what will “round out” (so to speak) the shape of your loaf.
  • Bake for 30 minutes– again, no looking and no opening the oven, either.
  • After 30 minutes, get out those grill gloves/oven mitts again, open the oven, take off the lids and briefly admire your now lovely but not quite browned bread, and close up the oven again. Set up a cooling rack on the counter.
  • Reduce the heat to 450 and continue baking for about 30 more minutes without the lids, checking it again after about 20 minutes to make sure it’s not getting too dark on top. How dark (burnt?) is too dark/too much is probably a matter of personal tastes, but I’d encourage you to let it get really dark brown even to the point of a few burnt-looking spots for the best crusty flavor. If it looks like it is getting just too dark too quickly, you can always turn the oven off and let the bread continue to bake, or, after about 20 minutes, take the Dutch oven(s) out of the oven and leave it on top of the stove to bake through for another 10 minutes.
  • For one last time, put on those grill gloves/oven mitts and tip your now complete bread onto the cooling rack. The best (and most satisfying) sign that you have succeeded in making a lovely and crusty bread is the cracking sound it makes as cools.
  • Leave the bread alone at least an hour before you cut into it! This is a “discussion” I have with my wife all the time who always wants to cut immediately into the steaming hot bread. I understand that, but the bread is still basically baking as it cools, and if you cut into it too early and while it’s still really hot, you’ll release a ton of heat and steam and the inside of the bread (the “crumb”) will be more sticky than ideal. It’s hard to resist, but it’s worth it.

 

2021 was, I don’t know, what?

I mean, what just happened? Was it better than 2020? Worse? Absolutely no different to the point where we might as well group 2020 and 2021 into one Covid memory?

Hard to say.

I was feeling hopeful and optimistic around New Year’s and with last year’s wrap up/reflection post because a vaccine was on the way. Biden won and Trump lost. Then there was January 6, which at the time seemed like a dangerous bunch of idiots and confused Qanon supporters, but as the year went on and Congress and the media investigated, the insurrection seems to have been a lot more than that. 100 years from now, will people remember this time for this kind of nonsense and Trump or the plague of Covid? Both? Neither?

In late January/early February, my former EMU colleague and friend Clayton Eshleman died– I blogged about it here. He was 85, had been in ill-health, and I hadn’t been getting together with him for lunch for a while. It was still sad to see him go.

But things started getting better in March. Biden was still popular, Covid numbers were down, vaccines were starting roll out. We took a few days to go down to Hocking Hills in Ohio and hung out at a cool airbnb and hiked around a very icy Old Man’s Cave with our friend Michelle.  And then the light at the end of the tunnel: on March 17, Annette and I both got our first doses of the vaccine (Pfizer, it turned out). It was not easy to do. I searched for appointments for us for about a week and finally found a couple at a pharmacy in Coldwater, which is a little town in the very red south central part of Michigan about 90 miles away. I swear every other person there to get the shot was also from around Ann Arbor. We followed that up with shot number 2 in early April, and back then, Annette and I thought of ourselves as “cured” or at least now able to get back to our lives.

We started going back to the gym again (which is still requiring masks), and after the winter semester wrapped up, we were rarin’ to go. I took a long weekend roadtrip out to Iowa to see my parents who I hadn’t seen in person since Christmas 2019. We went to fucking Las Vegas in May— and saying that now after everything that’s happened with Covid since then seems absolutely crazy, but back then, we thought the vaccine would protect us from everything and we were just getting a bit of a head start on what was going to be a great summer.

Then, summer. I’m not going to go into it and it wasn’t all Covid, but stuff got dark. But it did get better. We returned to the same cottage we had near Glen Arbor in 2020, ate some fancy food, saw some nature, hung around the cottage in lovely weather. Before and after that, there was golf for me and kayaking for Annette, and before too long, another semester at EMU. And then August came and after a family trip to see folks in Iowa, it was time for another school year.

As I wrote about here, my mindset coming into this school year was different (and perhaps not great) because of a lot of the unpleasantness in the previous term and because EMU had a buyout offer which I could have taken. It was the first time in my career where I really thought about retirement– not that seriously because there’s no way I could afford it, but not completely unseriously either. After all, I did have at least one colleague younger than me who took this deal (and good riddance to that person as well), and a friend just a bit younger than me left his job for good too. Maybe it’s all connected to the great resignation, I don’t know.

You’d think after the 2020-21 school year that things would have been better in fall 2021– at least students would be used to the online format of most classes by now. But in a lot of ways, it was quite a bit worse. Some of that is what I’d describe as “the luck of the draw” in terms of the individual students I had, though most of it was just everything that was lingering on, including higher Covid numbers in Michigan than we’d seen before (and we’re climbing again with Omicron too). Everyone was tired and defeated and at least a little (and sometimes a lot) depressed. So it was rough. I certainly didn’t do my best work, and a lot of my students crashed and burned all the way to the end.

And yet at the same time, it also got better. I have been reading about Covid every single day for almost 18 months now, and the reality of the situation as far as I can tell– even now with the Omicron variant and the breakthrough infections it has been causing– is serious illness and death from Covid 19 is almost exclusively limited to the unvaccinated and to people with serious pre-existing conditions. So at some point this past fall, I decided that the worry and anxiety about Covid (not to mention not doing anything in public for fear of the virus) caused by all the preventive measures was worse than the possibility of getting the disease. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to get Covid, I always wear a mask in stores or whatever, and I’m still not fully back to doing everything I did in the before-times. I don’t hang around in coffee shops much anymore, for example. But Annette and I got boosted as soon as we could, and with some reasonable precautions, I think we both felt ready to do more things.

So we had friends over around the fire pit, we went back up north to stay at a fancy bed and breakfast, we had a great Halloween. We had the Krause version of Thanksgiving/Christmas in Kansas City, and then the Wannamaker version of Christmas in Naples. And now here we are, at the end of 2021, whatever that was. I have a lot of friends and colleagues who think that all of those outings and roadtrips and airplanes and airports and getting together with folks is just flat-out dangerous. Wait more until it’s safe. But I don’t think covid is ever going to ever completely end, and we’re going to have to start to learn how to live with it.

Last year, I was feeling optimistic because of Biden, the vaccine, and what people were predicting was the beginning of the end of Covid. This year, I’m not going predict much of anything for 2022. Annette is going to be presenting at the MLA convention in Washington, D.C. next week and I’m going along as a tourist. As of today, the conference is still on, I think mainly because it was too late for the organization to cancel (though I don’t rule out some kind last minute change). I was looking forward to a f2f CCCCs in Chicago in March, but that’s been all moved online. I understand that decision, but based on what I read and hear about Omicron, there’s a very real chance that Covid will be a lot more under control by then. Who knows?

There’s only one thing I know about 2022 right now: Annette and I are both are on research fellowships, which means we’ll get a break from teaching until September so we can focus on our scholarship. I’ll be spending my time away from teaching working on the interview and then writing part of the project I started last year, along with other writing, reading, and other stuff away from the office. Crossing my fingers.