The Mornings of Kieran Healy, by Robert A. Caro

by Kieran Healy on May 3, 2012

We are pleased to present a short excerpt from the long-anticipated new work by the leading historical biographer of our time.

The Path to the Kitchen

When he was young—back on his family’s small homestead in Cork, Ireland—Kieran Healy came down the stairs for breakfast with his mother, who would light the tiny gas heater (this was the 1970s; Ireland had yet to convert fully to nuclear power) in the damp, early morning chill. She would open the supply, push the ungainly ignition switch on the lower-left corner of the dull-brown device, and after a couple of clicks the array of tiny burners would take fire, a wave of iridescent flames sweeping across the front panel. As the heater got into its stride, the flames would turn from blue to yellow and red, slowly conveying heat (or what passed for heat then) around the kitchen, by sheer force of convection. Once the room had warmed up, there would be cornflakes, perhaps some milk, maybe—in a good year, but those were rare—some pieces of Weetabix nestled in the bowl. As he got a little older, there would be tea, too. Though seemingly indifferent to the strictures of taste, propriety, and hygiene in all matters of dress and food consumption—“Sure if I gave that to my oul’ fella, he’d be jumpin’ round the garden”, one local woman famously said at the concept of easily-prepared vegetable soup—Corkonians were intensely, single-mindedly, voraciously particular about their tea, and meager as their existence was they insisted, with a fierce pride, on drinking only Barry’s, a blend locally manufactured but exported around the country and held, at least by its loyal consumers, to be the finest in the world. Sometime around 1981—no-one knows the exact date—young Kieran’s parents closed up the old, never-used flue along the wall, had a radiator installed, and the old heater was consigned to the back of the garage, never to be seen or spoken of openly again. And yet it was those blue flames that stayed with him, never directly acknowledged but, his Illinois-raised wife Laurie would remark, “always coming up in the middle of some interminable anecdote or other”—and much later, on humid Spring mornings, he would emerge bleary-eyed from the bedroom of his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, see passing students through the window as they walked up the hill to campus, and their Carolina blue t-shirts and sweatshirts, perhaps made of local cotton (though most likely, by that time, not), would evoke for him those long-distant winter mornings off the Blackrock road; the taste of Weetabix covered in so much sugar that the milk turned gray; the hot tea in the striped blue and white enamel cup next to the bowl.

But there was no Barry’s Tea now.
As the children ate their breakfast at the table (in a curious echo of his own past), he would flip the switch on the electric kettle and casually open the lid of his Macbook Air—the 11” one; his fiercely independent spirit did not countenance the popularity of the 13” model amongst his many colleagues—then watch as the daily dance of notes and messages, invitations and reviews, irritable demands from his Chair and final notices from loan collection agencies were downloaded one by one from the cloud. Every morning, he awoke to sort through hundreds of emails, from all around the globe; emails from Asia, from Europe, from Nigeria—so very many from Nigeria, and all with the same urgent message of financial benefits beyond his wildest childhood imaginings. But they would have to wait until another day. Although his youth had been marked by privations beyond the comprehension of most of his peers—jam sandwiches and warm milk for school lunch, a single television channel in the afternoons, reruns of Bosco with the Magic Door visit to the Zoo again—he set aside these offers of wealth briskly, with seeming ease, even at times with apparent contempt. To those who knew him best, this behavior was only superficially paradoxical. Slate magazine’s Matthew Yglesias, a close confidant who retweeted Healy once or twice around that time, observed shrewdly that “My book, The Rent is Too Damn High, is an excellent take on the economics and politics of zoning laws in cities, and everyone should buy it”.

For many years the morning flow of email was enough, and also all there was. Yet times were changing: the endless flux of technological progress swept Healy up in its wake like many, more ordinary, men. Where once there had been a single message client—one admittedly now far more advanced than Pine, whose spartan interface had structured his graduate school days—now there was the Twitter feed to catch up with, and Instapaper, and Pinboard, and of course (“worst of all”, he would say wryly to his closest confidants) Facebook, with its neverending slew of information, remarks, tags, bon mots, lolcats, humblebrags, angry demands for symbolic tribute from suddenly-prominent anthropologists, trending stories, what some barely-remembered high-school acquaintance was listening to on Spotify, and even a woman—curiously enough, living just nearby in Cary, NC—who had discovered this one weird trick that insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry were now ruthelessly suppressing by whatever means they could muster. Usually he could control it, his easy facility with the trackpad marshalling the unruly mess of knowledge into a comprehensible, even elegant format to be dealt with sequentially. But not this morning. Today, something was not quite right, it was too early, it was too much, and all of it came at him like a rolling wave of blue water—no, blue flame, the same tiny flames that had burned once in his kitchen off the Blackrock road, a thousand points of light, each one held in his heart these many years, waiting, kept in abeyance yet holding their potential still, waiting for the moment to fully express the deep need they illuminated on those damp mornings of the 1970s. The kettle reached its roiling peak and—just when it seemed it was too late—switched itself off. He had the hot water he needed.

There was still no fucking tea.

(Based on an idea by Aaron Swartz with a sentence lifted from Greg Brown.)

Housework in Utopia

by John Quiggin on May 3, 2012

The immediate reason for this post is the Crooked Timber discussion of my previous post on world meat supplies which morphed into a (mainly First World) arguments about cooking. But my bigger concern is the need for the left to offer a feasible utopian vision as an alternative to the irrationalist tribalism of the right.

My idea of feasible utopia is prosaic compared to some of the utopias that have grabbed attention in the past, but have led either nowhere or into disaster. On the other hand, it’s positively, well, utopian, compared to what’s on offer from Obama and Romney, or their counterparts in other  countries. In essence, it’s an extrapolation of the course we seemed to be on from the end of World War II to the early 1970s, a mixture of social democracy, feminism and environmental sustainability applied to ever broader spheres of activity.

The central element of my idea of utopia is that everyone should be able to live decently, without being forced to spend a lot of time doing crappy jobs. That brings us pretty directly to housework[1], something most of us spend quite a bit of time on, and which involves a fair amount of crappy work, literally and figuratively.

If my conditions for utopia are to be feasible we need two things to be true. First, the total amount of crappy work has to be small enough that the average amount per person is not too large. Second, the work has to be organized so that no one actually has to do a lot more than their share.

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That’s Racism, Everybody!

by Belle Waring on May 3, 2012

I wish people would stop being so confused all the time. If someone is “a racist” it is not because he is a like a Nazi with a uniform and everything, and pledges allegiance to the flag of racism, and goes around shouting “I hate Mexican people!” Well, to be fair, he might shout that if he were drunk and had smoked some of the cottonmouth killer, or were on MySpace. And those dudes in Stormfront exist. And racist skinheads too dumb to join Stormfront. Nonetheless, in ordinary speech one only means “hey, he said a thing that was racially prejudiced,” or “she told a racist joke,” or “he threw a crumpled-up beer can at that broke-ass African-American gentleman walking right beside the road (South Carolina doesn’t hold much truck with sidewalks) while shouting ‘f%cK you n1gger!,'” or “she collects these weird racist yam crate-labels from Louisiana in the ’30s and I am not sure her motives are entirely pure.” (May God help me on this one, a collector sells them in Takoma Park at vintage fairs and sometimes I succumb. They’re so cool! She’s a 65-year-old Black lady, so she’s off the hook. OR IS SHE?!).

Anyway, otherwise very intelligent people such as Radley Balko go weirdly off the rails on this one. (Whom you should all read all the time, even though libertarians annoy you, because he is the only person in the history of blogging to ever get anybody off of death row by blogging about it. We arrange some excellent book events, and we make nice covers and John typesets’em all purty, but I’m pretty sure Radley’s got us beat ten ways to Sunday on useful blogging and we will never recoup, not with a thousand book events. Anyway he’s not the annoying kind of libertarian. Er, rather, he’s one of the least annoying kinds. He actually cares about the rights of poor people and has noticed that corporations as well as governments can infringe upon your rights, although he doesn’t focus upon this latter point as much as a left-libertarian would. Did I mention he saves people’s lives? His blog is rushing into burning buildings and dragging people out, and then it wants to go back in, and the chief’s trying to hold it back, because it’s inhaled all this smoke and all, but it busts free and saves three more children, but it just has three cute smudges of soot on its face, and then it kisses Natalie Portman. Then maybe it links to Ilya Somin, and you think, the hell he did?! Our blog is just drinking a cup of coffee, and making plans to kiss…Clive Owen? I may need to re-do the polling on this one.)
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