Summer Train Trip: PDX to LA

June 13 – 15

As you probably know from reading this past winter’s blog posts, we were supposed to travel to Australia and New Zealand for an epic vacation. That was cancelled at the last minute as one of us was injured causing us to cancel the trip.

But we are better now and we wanted to do something else from our bucket list. We got tickets for four train rides through the West. The first leg would be the Coast Starlight from Portland to Los Angeles. Then we will take the Southwest Chief from LA to Chicago; followed by the California Zephyr from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay Area and  a return to Portland on the northbound Coast Starlight to complete the loop.

We used Lyft for the first time to get to Portland Union Station. Because we reserved a sleeper room we had access to the Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge. We hung out in there for a while but also ventured out to grab some photos before we left.

20170613 DSC02403 FE 24-240mm F3.5-6.3 OSS Summer Train Trip to Chicago

“Go by Train” the sign says. We think we will thank you!

The main waiting room is large! Passengers were waiting for the Coast Starlight, the Empire Builder (direct to Chicago through Spokane, Montana, and North Dakota) and the Cascades which travels between Eugene and Seattle many times a day.

20170613 DSC02368 FE 24-240mm F3.5-6.3 OSS Summer Train Trip to Chicago

Each car has an attendant to make life pleasurable for the passengers. Our attendant was Alfred – he was great.

20170613 IMG_0086 iPhone 6s iPhone 6s front camera 2.65mm f-2.2 Summer Train Trip to Chicago

The train leaves Portland mid Afternoon and heads down to Eugene before turning east up the mountains toward Klamath Falls as the sun sets and then down the middle of California, turning west to the coast. When we awoke we had passed Redding and we breakfasted as we travelled more or less parallel to US 101.

It’s obvious Alfred has been on this route for a few years. As we pulled into Salinas, California – where we would stop for less than 10 minutes – he booked it across the street to a little restaurant and sauntered back with his lunch.

Here are some of the California views from our sleeper car.

A different view of US 101 through central California near Paso Robles

A different view of US 101 through central California near Paso Robles

Watching the Coast Starlight navigate a curve

Watching the Coast Starlight navigate a curve through the hills of California

Eventually we came to the California Coast just south of San Luis Obispo and followed it down through Santa Barbara and Ventura.

First view of the Pacific Ocean on the Coast Starlight

First view of the Pacific Ocean on the Coast Starlight

It’s difficult taking pictures from inside the train; the dirty windows and reflections conspire to obscure the photos. We found one method is to press an iPhone directly against the glass; unfortunately, this means you can only grab a shot of what is right in front of you. So we accepted some reflection and smudges for better views of our travels.

We pulled into Los Angeles a little after 10 PM on June 14  – a little more than an hour late. Late is usual on Amtrak cross country trips so if you take the train be prepared. We used Lyft again to get to our hotel – we are big fans of Lyft from our early experiences. I know an ex taxi driver who won’t be pleased to hear that. But it is so easy. All done with an iPhone app with no cash exchanging hands.

Our train to Chicago was scheduled to leave around 6 PM the next day so we had the morning and afternoon free to explore downtown Los Angeles – specifically Olivera Street – the heart of the old and original El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula”  (AKA , “town of our lady the Queen of Angels of the River Porciúncula”). After breakfast we walked a few blocks from our hotel to the old downtown.

Early Los Angeles building near Olivera Street

Early Los Angeles building near Olivera Street

This building housed an old fire station – and it is a fire station museum today. Next door we found an office where volunteers give tours of the area. We connected with Rich for an hour long tour of the beginning of the city. Olivera Street is a shopping district today with lots of colorful items for sale.

20170615 DSC05390 DSC-RX100 28-100mm F1.8-4.9 Summer Train Trip to Chicago - Los Angeles

Carla is a history buff and loves these kinds of tours. After an hour we thanked Rich …

Richard: our guide to early Los Angeles architecture and history

Richard: our guide to early Los Angeles architecture and history

…and went in search of lunch. If you like Mexican cuisine, you’ll find excellent opportunities to delight your palate. I had tacos on freshly pressed corn tortillas with some delicious refried beans and rice. Carla had a delicious pineapple tamale. Yum.

We then went back to the hotel, showered, changed, checked out, and headed back over to Union Station. It is a beautiful building with a clock tower looming above old Los Angeles downtown.

First view of the Pacific Ocean on the Coast Starlight

First view of the Pacific Ocean on the Coast Starlight

Union Station is a large building with many interior waiting rooms and external plazas.

One of the Los Angeles Union Station courtyards

One of the Los Angeles Union Station courtyards

Los Angeles is definitely a car town but there are plenty of trains to help with the traffic. Many trains come from all over the Southland including regular service from my old hometown of Palmdale.

At 5:30 we walked up to the tracks and watched the Southwest Chief back into place. We boarded our sleeping car, found our room and prepared for the two night trip to Chicago.

<To Be Continued>

 

 

Posted in Photography, Trains, Travel, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

St Louis Cut Ribs

Last weekend (June 2-4) the wives were out of town so we boys were on our own. Jay’s fence needed mending and his brother Jim is an expert carpenter so he volunteered to come down and take care of things. John is a top-notch handyman and helped with the construction. I am not handy. At all. I knew I’d be a hindrance so I helped by making dinner. Jay had bought some St Louis cut ribs and I quaked in my shoes a bit. I have a Weber Performer kettle grill that I hadn’t used as a barbecue smoker yet. Normally I’d like to practice on my own before tackling a project like this. But oh well. I figured they’d work so hard they’d be very hungry and eat whatever was put in front of them.

The night before I constructed a Kansas City barbecue sauce taken from Meathead Goldwyn’s  Amazing Ribs website. This is not my all time favorite sauce (a little sweet for me) but people gobble it up when I make it. We start with a plethora of ingredients. We dice the onion, mince the garlic, and combine the spices in a little bowl. Everything else gets mixed together.

Kansas City BBQ Sauce Ingredients

Kansas City BBQ Sauce Ingredients

To pull it all together, we sauté the onion then add the garlic, then the spices. Then stir in the wet ingredients in and simmer for 15 minutes. Meathead doesn’t include the tamarind paste in the main body of the recipe but mentions it in the narrative. It’s a little expensive but definitely gives the sauce a better-than-your-average-backyard-bbq-sauce quality. You’ll find it in the Asian aisle of you local supermarket.

Meathead knows barbecue so I went all in with his Memphis meat dust rub.

Meathead's Memphis Meat Dust rub - no salt

Meathead’s Memphis Meat Dust rub – no salt

Notice there isn’t any salt in the ingredients. I think back in the day his rubs had salt included but it seems he’s changed his method. His approach now is to dry brine the ribs a few hours before cooking with a dusting of kosher salt. Then apply the rub shortly before you put the ribs on the grill. Okay. It’s easier than what I used to do: include the salt in the rub; apply rub to the ribs the night before and wrap with plastic wrap. That was way messy. The new approach is much easier. I applied the salt to the ribs around breakfast time.

St. Louis cut ribs are bigger than baby backs and can be identified by their distinctive rectangular shape. I figured I wasn’t going to get two racks to lay flat on my grill; much less three. So, I headed out to Orchard Supply Hardware to get a rib rack – it doesn’t take much to have an excuse to buy cooking gadgets. Even with the gadget, I thought three racks of these large ribs would be too much; so I set up a mini-competition with myself. I pulled out my Weber gasser for one of the racks.

I rubbed the ribs and started the grills. I mentioned in an earlier post that I have an ABC Barbecue “Slow ‘n Sear” attachment for my charcoal grill. It is a stainless steel semi-circular device that sits on top of the lower grill leaving space to put the top rack over it. The purpose is to create a two-zone cooking area; the charcoal briquettes go in the device and there is a double wall barrier providing a cooler second zone. For long slow cooks – like this one you can pour a quart of hot water in that double-wall barrier providing a better heat buffer and generating a bit of steam that helps the smoke adhere to the meat. Shoulda taken a picture – you can see it farther down.

2 Racks of St Louis Cut Ribs ready for the grill

2 Racks of St Louis Cut Ribs ready for the grill

Notice those binder clips on the grill? They are there to seal the lid forcing the smoke up and over the meat and out the top grill vent. Without it some smoke tends to leak out, especially where the grill probe cables go under the cover.

Here’s a look at the Slow ‘n Sear. If you look closely you can see the briquettes contained in their space along with the boiling water in the reservoir.

Close up(-ish) view of the Slow 'n Sear

Close up(-ish) view of the Slow ‘n Sear

I adhere to the “if you are lookin’ you ain’t cookin”  philosophy of barbecue. Taking the lid off to check the meat cause’s the temperature to dive adding time to the cook. I have a probe that sits in the grill next to the meat to give me a good idea of the temperature at meat level. Heat rises – the hood thermometer will register up to 200° higher than the temperature down where the cooking is happening. For larger cuts of meat I also have a probe for the meat. With that information available, there should be little need to open the grill very much.

All the recipes I looked at said these can take up to six hours to cook so I needed to get the most of the 6 hours I had before dinner. The ribs go on the grills. Here they are a few hours later.  Um, I should have looked a little earlier after all.

St Louis Cut Ribs on the grill

St Louis Cut Ribs on the grill

1 rack of St Louis Cut Ribs on the Weber Gas Grill

1 rack of St Louis Cut Ribs on the Weber Gas Grill

The lower photo is the Weber Summit 670 gas grill. I have a drip pan with water directly underneath with only the rightmost burner going. On the left under the grill you can see a smoke tube I filled with Apple pellets and lit with a blow torch. The gas grill ribs look good; the kettle grill ribs are cooking a bit faster than I thought they would. That’s a nice way of saying they might burn.

After five hours they passed the bend test. Take some long tongs and grab the ribs lengthwise with the end of the tong about 1/3 to 1/2 down the rack. Pick them up; if the ribs start to break as they bend they are done. These were acing the test. At the end, I slathered on some sauce and grilled them on the direct side for about 30 seconds.

The racks were very dark on the outside. In barbecue we call that “having a good bark”. In this photo you can see they passed the bend test on the left side.

Direct grilling the ribs with sauce for a few seconds

Direct grilling the ribs with sauce for a few seconds

I hoped they would taste better than they looked.

Did I mention I made some beans; you have to have side dishes with your barbecue. I made my standard beans, and added a smoked ham hock because I wasn’t going to make refried beans. Follow the first steps of the recipe, stopping at the refried bean part.

Pinto bean ingredients (plus a smoked ham hock)

Pinto bean ingredients (plus a smoked ham hock

I brought the racks over to Jay’s house and cut them up into individual ribs. You can see the nice pink smoke ring on the rib in the rib on the lower right.

St Louis Cut Ribs ready for eating

St Louis Cut Ribs ready for eating

Here I’m bringing them out to the picnic table on the back deck.

Your faithful blogger bringing ribs to the table

Your faithful blogger bringing ribs to the table

Dinner was served

Dinner is served. Ribs with beans and potato salad

Dinner is served. Ribs with beans and potato salad

Despite my initial worries and my later worries about over-cooking the ribs; they were a hit.

Not the best picture of Jim at all but he’s enjoying dinner. I should have waited until his mouth wasn’t full. Sorry Jim.

Jim caught with his mouth full (Sorry!)

Jim caught with his mouth full (Sorry!)

Jay and John enjoyed dinner as well.

Jay and John enjoying dinner

Jay and John enjoying dinner

A good time was had by all. Jim, John, and Jay had a little work on the fence to complete the next day before Jim headed back home.

One thing about low ‘n slow barbecue: you have to have an afternoon free to cook. On a nice summer day, this is a perfect activity. Grab a book and something to drink; sit on the deck and read while the meat cooks. I started the grills at noon and they were ready to eat at 5:30 – probably would have been perfect at 4:30 or 5:00. So, next time I’ll keep a better look at them. If you would like to see the cooking logs so you can get a better idea of the process, check out the Slow ‘n Sear cooking log here and the gas grill cooking log here. Cooking logs are essential to my barbecue. I can see what I did last time; how it went and take heed of the “Next Time” information.

 

 

Posted in Barbecue; BBQ;, Cooking | Leave a comment

Reading: How the Bible Came to Be by John Barton

How the Bible Came to BeHow the Bible Came to Be by John Barton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a very short summation of the author’s more scholarly works on the bible. He writes about how controversial his thesis is although it seems pretty reasonable to me. I suppose if your view of the Bible’s creation is a set of individuals writing down their message from God, then this more historical approach would be disturbing if not blasphemy.
Barton argues that the development of the bible went through various stages. First they were written; then they were collected into a set of works. Then “such collections came to be read in special ways which do not apply to secular books – allegorically, for example, or aw universally relevant, or as full of hidden meaning.” [p 87] The final stage is “where some competent authority pronounces that the category of scriptural books is not full, and draws a line under the collection to turn it into The Holy Bible.” [p 87] This step is called canonization but “is less important than it sounds for either the Old or the New Testament.” [p 87] It is less important because in the life of the church some books are more important than others. For example “ecclesiastical committees still debate whether it is appropriate to read Revelation in church.” [p 85].
All in all this is a good book with some interesting insights into the Bible. I was surprised by the lack of drama.

View all my reviews

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Grilled Brats w/ Peppers and Onions

July 28, 2017

I must be swayed by habits more than I think. Last week I posted how I usually grill a tri-tip early in the grilling season. This weekend I made brats with peppers and onions; turns out I made this on Memorial Day Weekend a few years ago. Regardless; it’s good and I thought I’d share again. It comes from 2008 Cook’s Illustrated [pay site] but I’ll share some of the highlights here.

This recipe is perfect for company: it’s easy to prep and you don’t have to sweat over the grill very much until the last few minutes. And the results are terrific. It’s absurdly easy; a couple of large onions. three bell peppers – yellow and red please, no green. Some brats, a bit of salt pepper and a few thyme sprigs and you are set.

Ingredients for brats with peppers and onions

Ingredients for brats with peppers and onions

Preheat your grill on high.

The onions need some help to cook down. Slice them in rings then microwave them with some salt, pepper, and thyme leaves for 5 or six minutes in a covered microwave safe bowl, turning once.

Here they are at the start.

Onion rings ready for the microwave.

Onion rings ready for the microwave.

And after a few minutes in the microwave they are much softer

Onion slices out of the microwave and ready for the grill pan.

Onion slices out of the microwave and ready for the grill pan.

While the onions are cooking down, quarter the peppers. Layer everything in the pan and cover with aluminum foil. Scrape down the grill and reduce the heat to medium-ish. Place the covered tray in the middle of the grill for 15 minutes.

Let’s talk grill brushes for a moment. Last summer I joined a Kickstarter campaign for the Grillinator Grill Brush (I don’t get a commission or any consideration for this review). I got it late winter and have used it a couple of times the past two weeks. It’s amazing. I’m not sure if it will last longer than others but it does an excellent job cleaning. I ran the brush over the grill a couple of times and all the crud disappeared. Take a look at the bristles on that thing! They had a delay originally because the twisted wires didn’t keep a good enough clamp on the bristles; but they’ve fixed that problem. If you are looking for a grill brush this season; try this one.

Brats with peppers and sausages in the grill pan.

Brats with peppers and sausages in the grill pan.

You can see the onions have cooked down a bit more helped with the fat from the brats.  Can we talk brats for a minute. The ones on the left are from our local New Season’s Market. They used to be the gold standard. Then we found Olympia Provisions; oh, they make good stuff. Their cured meats like salami and sopressata are heavenly. I picked up three of their bratwursts (also sold in New Seasons) along with the standards. No contest; the Olympia Provisions sausages were the hands down champions. They remind me of the street brats I ate in Germany on a trip in 1973. I’ve been trying to find something close to them for years – and now here they are right in my home town. The grind is very fine and the spices are a perfect mixture. They are almost good enough for you to sell your house, quit your job and move to Portland. Almost; I recommend visiting and trying them out first.

Anyway, after 15 minutes remove the aluminum foil cover and put the brats and peppers directly on the grill and let the onions continue to cook down.

Brats and peppers out of the pan and into the fire

Brats and peppers out of the pan and into the fire

I cut the fire under the brats so they wouldn’t flame – they still get a nice color. Flip the brats and peppers and stir the onions every couple of minutes  until everything looks done. The brats are probably cooked through, but you might want to use a quick read thermometer to be sure.

Put it all on a platter; serve, and delight your guests. We had no guests to delight; the big family party will be at one of my niece’s homes tomorrow.

A platter of brats with onions and peppers

A platter of brats with onions and peppers

And dinner is served. It was so nice out; we sat at the outside table we set up earlier in the day. Traditionally this is served on a bun; but I don’t need the bread. Also, the corn on the cob was cooked in my Instant Pot Pressure Cooker – 3 minutes on high pressure with 2 cups of water followed by quick pressure release.

Dinner is served. Corn on the cob with brats, onions, and peppers.

Dinner is served. Corn on the cob with brats, onions, and peppers.

And here is the random picture of the day.

20170528 DSC02269 FE 55mm F1.8 ZA Grilled sausages with onions and peppers

Rating: ★★★★

As I said above; this is great for company. Here is a copy of the recipe I keep for personal use.

Posted in Barbecue; BBQ;, Cooking | Leave a comment

Tri-Tip

May 21, 2017

We’ve had a few days of beautiful weather in the Portland (Oregon) region; it’s very welcome after the cold and wet winter and early spring we had. Our local school districts had nine (count them 9!) school closure days for snow this past winter. Normally we get maybe one day off of work/school in the winter due to snow. It was a stone drag. We really aren’t set up for snow in the metro area so an accumulation of snow really messes things up. Then we had record wet in March and April – hey this is Portland, so record rain is a serious amount of rain. But like I said, it’s been nice for a few days and the 7-day forecast is more of the same. (Feel free to tease me if I start complaining about the heat later this week.)

And every late spring when I get the grills out, tri-tip is at the forefront of my mind. You can search for it on my site for an interesting (?) trip through my grill history over the years. Tri-tip it is then. It was just the two of us for dinner so I got a 1.5 lb roast at our local New Seasons Market which has great meat, poultry, fish, and vegetables.

I’m a California boy so I always cook tri-tip the same way – Santa Maria rub of kosher salt,  granulated garlic, onion powder, black pepper, white pepper, and red (cayenne) pepper. And I baste it with olive oil and red wine vinegar.

Santa Maria rub ingredients for Tri-tip

Santa Maria rub ingredients for Tri-tip

Then put a nice thick coating on the roast.

Tri-tip with Santa Maria rub applied

Tri-tip with Santa Maria rub applied

While that sits for a bit, fire up the grill. I use a Slow ‘n Sear attachment from ABC Barbecue [I do not receive anything for my recommendations]  to keep the briquettes on one side. It’s great for barbecue; you can get a nice low temperature that will maintain for up to 8 hours. This cook uses a hotter grill for a much shorter time.

Charcoal ready to be fired up on the Weber Performer

Charcoal ready to be fired up on the Weber Performer

Don’t worry about that rusty looking grate. Once the briquettes go in, I slap the grill on and then brush it and oil it.

The tri-tip roast goes on the indirect side and we work to keep the grill temperature at 350° Don’t depend on the thermometer at the top of the lid – it gets real hot up there. We want to maintain the temperature at the grill level – you can see the probe in the next picture. When it registers 350° the thermometer in the lid is registering well over 550°

Tri-tip on the indirect side of the grill

Tri-tip on the indirect side of the grill

Oh, and for authentic Santa Maria tri-tip you need to use oak wood chunks. I let the grill get a little hotter than the target but it’s all good. It was done in about 45 minutes.

Tri-tip ready to slice

Tri-tip ready to slice

Slicing tri-tip can be a bit tricky; you need to slice it against the grain and there are two sets of grains in this roast. For best results cut it in half the short way right where the convex and concave portions of the roast are – about half way. Then rotate the piece on the left about 90° to slice. The smaller piece on the right can be cut crosswise from the small end to the big end. That’s harder to say than to do. I have 3 tips for you if you are just getting started.

  1. Take a good look at the roast before you put the rub on – maybe take a picture. Make a note of the grains to envision how you’ll cut it. Then when it is done; orient the cooked roast on the cutting board the same way you had it when you prepared it. Go from there.
  2. Watch this quick Youtube video for a graphical demonstration.
  3. Cut those little ends off and eat them before they get on the serving plate. Hey, you did the work, you get a treat! Similar to burnt ends on a brisket. Yum.

Once it’s sliced, serve it up. We had a great jicama, corn, and black bean salad to go along with it. A tasty simple meal for a beautiful day. The rub really makes this dish; it is so peppery.  I think I got the rub recipe proportions from Amazing Ribs; but my original link doesn’t bring up the same rub; Meathead must have changed the way he cooks it.  No worries; you can find my recipe here. And if you are interested I’ve  posted my cooking log here. You can see I had the grill running hotter than I wanted. The right way to go about it is to get the grill completely set up and spend a few minutes getting the temperature right, then put the meat on. I was too anxious to eat I guess. Like I said, no worries; it tasted great.

Rating: ★★★★ An excellent choice for serving company – simple and delicious

Posted in Barbecue; BBQ;, Cooking | 1 Comment

Trains and Birds at Ridgefield Bird Sancutary

May 20, 2017

It’s been too long since I went out with my camera to capture some photos of the world. If you own a camera but don’t go out to take pictures then you aren’t a photographer, you’re just a guy who owns a camera. The weather took a turn for the better this week so it was time to get out and about. I wanted some company so I asked my buddy Jay – a retired biologist from the Fish and Wildlife Service and  an avid bird watcher – if he’d like to join me. He was game. I’m an avid train watcher so the the  Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary in Washington seemed like a perfect place to scratch both our itches as it features trains and wildlife.

We drove up I5 into Washington to exit 14 and turned west toward the little town of Ridgefield; then took a left on 9th until we got to the south entrance of the refuge. There is a dirt road that goes down a hill and into the refuge. Just before the railroad crossing there is a wide clearing which is perfect for train watching. This line is very active with both BNSF and Union Pacific trains rolling through. There is a control light south of the clearing so you can get an idea of what is coming. Green or blinking yellow lights mean something is coming from the north while red lights may mean a train coming from Vancouver (Washington) to the south. We weren’t disappointed. First up came a northbound grain train

Northbound BNSF grain train at Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

Northbound BNSF grain train at Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

Then we were treated to a parade of southbound Union Pacific trains

Union Pacific container trains headed south at Ridgefield Bird Sancutary

Union Pacific container trains headed south at Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

A short UP container train at Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

A short UP container train at Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

We then headed over the one-lane wooden bridge into the sanctuary. I posted my Interagency Senior Pass on the rear view mirror and we headed around the loop. If you are 62 years old or older the Interagency Senior Pass is the deal of all deals. For $10 you receive a lifetime pass to any federal recreation site. That means no entry fee at Yellowstone National Park for example. Of course you need to have it with you. Back in March 2015, while visiting my aunt and uncle in Cottonwood, we got up real early for a hike in Sedona. When we got there we realized we left our pass back at their place. For $10 I didn’t feel bad for going into town to buy another. Now we keep one in our road trip car and Carla has one in  her purse.

The refuge is 5,300 acres large and the circular path goes through just a small area. But it’s big enough to see some birds. Jay had his checklist which lists the birds found and how common they are in each season. The best time for activity is early morning or evening; since we were there about noon we didn’t see as much as we did in our visit a back in 2012.

The most prevalent bird was the red-winged blackbird.

Red winged blackbird at the Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

Red-winged blackbird at the Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

There was a big traffic jam at one spot as people were looking at a great horned owl; we got a bit of a look at an oval lump up in the tree but I didn’t get a clear shot. Then about 1/4 of a mile later I saw something in a tree. It turned out to be another great horned owl. My first confirmed sighting of a bird that Jay didn’t see first. Unfortunately the owl was between me and the sun, meaning he (she?) was in shadow. I tried to persuade him (her?) to move to a tree on the other side of the road, to no effect. I grabbed the picture anyway and used Adobe Lightroom to bring him (her?) to the forefront.

Great horned owl at the Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

Great horned owl at the Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

The bird sanctuary is in a beautiful location near the Columbia River and it shows its stuff on a beautiful spring day where green vegetation and blue skies with fluffy clouds combine for beautiful scene.

Beautiful day at the Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

Beautiful day at the Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

We saw some Canadian Geese with some goslings!

Canadian Geese at the Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

Canadian Geese at the Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

Along the way I got to chatting with a couple about birding; the woman had a large 400mm lens on her Canon camera (my zoom goes out to 240mm). She said that to really get good shots you need a 1,000mm lens because birds are small and normally you can’t get very close. I wish she hadn’t told me that 🙂 Now I have lens envy. But when we saw a great blue heron in out in a field I saw what she meant. My little zoom just couldn’t get the detail. A nice looking bird nonetheless.

Great blue heron at the Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

Great blue heron at the Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

As we finished the loop we saw another of the red-winged blackbirds. They were pretty persnickety little creatures. They’d pose just until I got my camera out, then turn away. But you can see how they got their name.

Red winged blackbird at the Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

Red winged blackbird at the Ridgefield Bird Sanctuary

We had a nice day even though we didn’t see a lot of birds. Going through his checklist, Jay counted 12 bird species along with a couple of nutria (swimming rats in my opionion). Pretty small compared to that 2012 outing; but you don’t have to see a lot of birds to have an enjoyable time.  It was time for lunch so we headed into Ridgefield for a bite and a sandwich shop before heading home. A fun day.

Posted in Foliage and Landscape, Trains, Wildlife | 4 Comments

Reading: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Subtitle: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
The November 2016 election showed me I’m out of touch with middle America. I’ve been reading books this winter and spring to help me get a more accurate view of the problems facing the this group. This book, along with Thomas Friedmans “Thank You for Being Late”, and Sam Quinones’ “Dreamland” are other pieces to the puzzle.
J.D. Vance provides a brutal and personal overview of life in America for the working and non-working poor. As he says in the first few pages, “I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children.”[p 2] Vance shows us “a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”[p 7] Vance was able to escape this cycle of poverty and eventually graduated from Yale law school. It’s almost a miracle he made it.
Vance’s grandparents moved out of Appalachian Kentucky into Ohio following work. But the work wasn’t long lasting; “As millions migrated north to factory jobs, the communities that sprouted up around those factories were vibrant but fragile: When the factories shut their doors, the people left behind were trapped in towns an cities that could no longer support such large populations with high-quality work. Those who could – generally the well educated, wealthy, or well connected – left, leaving behind communities of poor people. These remaining folks were the ‘truly disadvantaged’ [quoting William Julius Wilson’s book of that name] – unable to find good jobs on their own and surrounded by communities that offered little in the way of connections or social support.”[p 144]
These generations of poverty create a different environment. Domestic instability. Vance never really knew his biological father; his adoptive father left, and his mother went through a string of boyfriends who had no positive effect in J.D.’s or his sister’s lives. of the picture.
As kids we learn what is acceptable from our parents; in much of poor America, domestic violence is acceptable. “Mom and Bob’s problems were my first introduction to marital conflict resolution. Here were the takeaways: Never speak at a reasonable volume when screaming will do; if the fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first; always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner; if all else fails, take the kids and the do to a local motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you – if he or she knows where the children are, he or she won’t worry as much, and your departure won’t be as effective.”[p 71] Vance’s mother took the familiar path we read about in Dreamland: She starts out as an alcoholic, becomes addicted to pain killers, and eventually shoots black tar heroin. “Psychologists call the everyday occurrences of my and Lindsay’s life ‘adverse childhood experiences,’ or ‘ACE’ ”ACE’s are traumatic childhood events, and their consequences reach far into adulthood. The trauma need not be physical.”[p 226]
It’s obvious that the deck is stacked against the children in this situation and there is no wondering why it happens generation after generation. You learn what is “normal” as a child. If this is normal, then keep doing it. People lose the belief that their actions can bring about change in their lives. Luckily J.D. Vance had a small opportunity for a way out and he was able to make the most of it. He left his mother to live with his grandmother (Mamaw) who provided love, stability, and structure, which, in turn helped J.D. graduate from high school. “Psychologists call it learned helplessness’ when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life. From Middletown’s world of small expectations to the constant chaos of our home, life had taught me that I had no control. Mamaw and Papaw had saved me from succumbing entirely to that notion, and the Marine Corp broke new ground. If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching learned willfulness.”[p 163]
J.D. Vance’s takeaways are not the usual liberal tropes; he had a part-time job as a young adult and “every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else. … it was my first indication that the policies of Mamaw’s party of the working man’- the Democrats – weren’t all they were cracked up to be.”[p 139]
So how do we fix this problem? While Vance shows the problems with many of the current “solutions”, he doesn’t really answer that question – which I think is the biggest drawback. He sums things up by saying “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”[p 256] He’s right of course. but these problems are so large, and so entrenched that we can’t expect the poor to simply fix their problems themselves. Those problems are endemic; most have never learned the skills, or acquired the belief they can make a difference. And, as Thomas Friedman points out, it’s only going to get worse. The pace of changes from climate change, technology, and a global market (Mother Nature, Moore’s Law and the Market in Friedman’s shorthand) are increasing. Where once low skill jobs could bring relatively high wages – like those jobs provided by the factories that left Middletown – those days are gone and aren’t coming back.
Vance argues these problems may not be fixable; the best we can do is “put our thumb on the scale” to help them out. One example of putting the thumb on the scale “would recognize what my old high school’s teachers see every day; the real problem for som many of these kids is what happens (or doesn’t happen) at home. For example, we’d recognize that Section 8 vouchers ough to be administered in a way that doesn’t segregate the poor into little enclaves.” [p 245]
I’m willing to come down off my liberal high horse to engage the problem; but we have to develop new strategies to get that thumb on the scale.

As an aside, you can get a quick look into this problem by listening to Tom Ashbrook’s On Point broadcast of June 29, 2016 entitled “Poverty, Religion, and American Frustration”. We listened to it last summer on our road trip – which is how this book originally came to be on my bookshelf.

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