Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Proust's Madeleine from the Portuguese

I hadn't had Rojoes Cominho in a long time. It's pork cubes browned and then braised in garlic, cumin, and white wine, with lemon slices and flat-leaf parsley added at the end. When Kathleen asked me what I wanted for my birthday dinner, I decided on Rojoes Cominho with Portuguese fried potatoes. We used to eat it a lot. Pork was cheap in the 1970s, especially in Iowa, and we had acquired several of the Time-Life "Foods of the World" books, including The Cooking of Spain and Portugal.

In those days we lived in Parklawn Apartments in Iowa City. Today it's a regular dormitory. In 1991 it became infamous as the residence of Gang Lu, the brilliant Chinese physics student who murdered four professors and a rival student, and crippled another student. But during the 1970s it was married student housing. We were lucky to get an apartment there, as the rent was considerably lower than in the private housing market.

At Parklawn was a very sophisticated couple. He was slightly built, and wore a moustache and goatee. She was a red-haired beauty who kept her maiden name. They seemed a bit aloof. But when someone organized a get-together for the residents, which included a potluck dinner, they participated. I decided to make Rojoes Cominho for the potluck. And I was surprised and pleased that the sophisticated husband sought me out and complimented me for making the dish.

That would be the end of the story, except that several months (or perhaps years) later the young man I had thought so urbane made a radical conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. He spent his days on the Pentacrest (the center of the University, on the hill overlooking the Iowa River, and named for the Old Capitol and the four great limestone halls surrounding it) lawn proclaiming the power of Jesus Christ to all who would listen.

I was an an agnostic in those days. Sometimes I still am. But I was shocked and perhaps frightened by this radical conversion. The young man had not lost any of his intelligence, but he now seemed a fool, sermonizing and arguing with all who would listen. It's doubtful he won any converts.

My own conversion took place over years--it's still taking place, sometimes retreating, sometimes advancing. When I learned of Kant's view that people should act as if they are free--whether they're free or not--I applied this to my faith, or lack of it. I try to act as though a benevolent and just God exists, even when my doubts are overpowering. I don't wish for a "blinding light" conversion. But making and eating Rojoes Cominho brought back memories of that young couple, who are, of course, now as middle-aged as I am.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Great Train Robbery--Coming Soon

“Here I go again, crossing the country in coach trains.”
-Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Starting from San Francisco.”

If George W. Bush gets his way, tomorrow’s poets won’t have the benefit of Ferlinghetti’s rolling muse. And most of us who care about this form of transportation suspect that it’s not just the wonderful long-distance trains that the Bush Administration wants to snuff out, but all passenger train service. Because they couldn’t kill passenger trains through Congress--even a Republican Congress--the Bush loyalists appear willing to do, in the campaign parlance, “whatever it takes,” to make flying and driving our only transportation options.

David Gunn, who was president of Amtrak until November 9, when the Bush-appointed Amtrak Board of Directors fired him, put it bluntly to Railway Age Magazine: “They have to do a lot of dirty stuff this year, because next year is an election year, and what they’ve got in mind will be very unpopular.” Within the next few months," Gunn said, “there will be a lot of train-offs and other service cutbacks.”

Earlier this fall, the Amtrak board secretly voted to authorize the dismantling of the Amtrak system by selling off the Northeast Corridor. Such a move would have to be approved by Congress and all indications are that even this Congress will not go along.

While Bush loyalists speak the language of “Amtrak reform,” Gunn calls their bluff: “Anything they’ll tell you is bullshit… The Administration is serious about taking this place apart.”
Except in the Northeast Corridor, passenger trains do not seriously compete with the fly-drive culture. But so long as there are passenger trains running, it’s a reminder to the oilmen who dictate Bush's policies that perhaps there is a civilized alternative to fuel-guzzling jets and SUV‘s. They want to nip that possibility in the bud. Hence this backhanded attack.

And when they whine about Amtrak subsidies, they ignore the hundreds of billions “invested” in the airport-airways and highway systems--not all of it from user fees.

But perhaps it’s the very civilized nature of rail travel which offends the Bush administration. The possibility of sitting in your window seat and seeing an America not dominated by Wal-Marts and strip malls. Of riding the Capitol Limited, the quintessential Slow Train, out of Pittsburgh and into the Alleghenies, following the Monongehela, Youghiogheny, and Casselman rivers to the eastern divide, then down the Potomac through Cumberland, Maryland, stopping at Martinsburg, West Virginia, with its roundhouse, and Harpers Ferry (the armory John Brown captured can be seen from the train), past Point of Rocks and its high Victorian depot, and into Washington’s incomparable Union Station. You won’t see these views from the Interstate, or on a flyover.

“Who stole America?” writes Ferlinghetti at the end of his poem. “Myself I saw in the window reflected.” Perhaps, but I'm not convinced. Stealing America isn’t a single act. As the technocrats like to say, it’s a process. And what Amtrak chairman David Laney and his fellow Bush-appointed directors are trying to do is certainly a big part of the process.

Our only hope is a big backlash from Congress.