Sheep Thick Soup


A colleague just returned to the office from a trip to Beijing. Before he embarked on his flight home, he did what most vacationers did: he thoughtfully bought a choice sample or two of the local confections for his coworkers; then, upon arrival in the workplace, he put the delicious candies out on a conference table so one and all could partake.

He says that in his haste to make a purchase to bring back home, he thought he might be buying some caramels or chocolates or something nutty. “Nutty” might be suggested by the packaging above. What he got instead was a species of the dense, sweet, bland, textureless red bean confection that I’ve encountered in Japan. It’s a taste I haven’t yet acquired, so I steered clear.

Still, it’s the thought that counts, and our colleague brought something that might be better than Violet Crumble, foreign-made dark-chocolate KitKats or Coffee Time bars, or 77 percent French chcocolate: a fun product label. Perusal of the packaging turned up an English-language ingredient list). What drew immediate attention:

Commodity name: Sheep thick soup

And then the ingredients:

White sugar, small red bean, malt dust, chestnut, food additive, agar

Malt dust. It’s my favorite. Most ‘specially with chestnut and melamine.

Now, in the spirit of research, I do find several references on Baidu, the Chinese-language search engine, to “sheep thick soup.” So my guess is that there’s a literal translation involved in the phrase “sheep thick soup” and that the characters actually might hold within them a zesty, clever name for this candy (“sweet mud ball,” maybe).

Anyone? (The Beijing company that makes sheep thick soup, Yushiyuan, has a sort of arty if opaque home page. Enjoy the English “About Us” page, which probably goes best with some nice thick soup of sheep.)




The other night, I discovered detectable levels of schmutz on the lens of my newish point-and-shoot camera. It’s got a sensitive on/off switch and an unfortunate habit of sometimes opening the lens when it’s in my pocket. At least that’s how I think the lens got dirty. So I bought a lens cleaning kit and tried to clean it up. Then I went outside after dark to take a picture of some lighted subject–hey, that’s our porch–to see how much crud showed up on the display. Looks much cleaner than it did. Lens cleaning exercise: concluded.

‘Cloudsplitter,’ John Brown, Our Madness

A major project of late 2008 and early 2009 was reading Russell Banks’s “Cloudsplitter.” The duration of the task–I carried the book around with me long enough so that the dust jacket is shot–says more about my overall fecklessness and willingness to spend hours online or in front of “The Wire” than it says about the novel. cloudsplitter.jpg

The books’ subject is John Brown, the abolitionist, activist and finally anti-slavery terrorist. Despite the national romance with the Civil War, not much about John Brown sinks in these days. To most, he is a fringe character. If you know him at all, you know him as the author of pointlessly bloody and tragically ill-conceived acts of violence that he imagined might further the anti-slavery cause. He was hanged, or martyred, for his trouble.

The novelist, Russell Banks, tries here to suggest the larger-than-life place Brown held in the national consciousness immediately before the war and for decades after. John Brown’s story is told in the voice of one of his sons, Owen. As an old man, he is speaking to a researcher for a writer working on a new biography of John Brown on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the raid on Harper’s Ferry. The researcher, Kathleen Mayo, the historian, Oswald Garrison Villard, and the book, “John Brown, 1800-1859: A Biography 50 Years After,” are all real (in fact, 99 years after publication, the 700-some-page biography is available online for free).

But this is a novel, and Banks conjures all of these characters to confront what Owen Brown says is the only question that matters about his father’s life: was he mad?

“Since they first heard his name, men and women have been asking it. They asked it continuously during his lifetime, even before he became famous. Strangers, loyal followers, enemies, friends, and family alike. It was then and is now no merely academic question. And how you and the professor answer it will determine to a considerable degree how you and whoever reads your book will come to view the long, savage war between the white race and the black race on this continent. If the book that your good professor is presently composing, though it contain all the known and previously unrecorded facts of my father’s life, cannot show and declare once and for all that Old Brown either was or was not mad, then it will be a useless addition to the head-high pile of useless books already written about him. More than the facts of my father’s hectic life, people do need to know if he was was sane or not. For if he was sane, then terrible things about race and human nature, especially here in North America, are true. If he was insane, then other, quite different, and perhaps not so terrible things about race and human nature are true.”

Having declared that as the central issue, Owen never raises it again in so many words, and never again in the context of a war between the races. Instead, we watch his family wracked by financial disaster, privation and death. The constant is the father’s domination of his family, his austere religiosity, the purity of his rage against slavery, and his determination to thwart it, then kill it. John Brown, his sons and acolytes wind up in Kansas, hacking slavery sympathizers to pieces with broadswords. Soon, he leads his men into the fastness of Harpers Ferry to launch a slave revolt he believes will sweep the South.

Just before the last act, Owen tells the unseen Miss Mayo that “Father’s progression from activist to martyr, his slow march to willed disaster, can be viewed, not as a descent into madness, but as a reasonable progression–especially if one considers the political strength of those who in those days meant to keep chattel slavery the law of the land.” And later: “… my father’s gradual progression from anti-slavery agitator all the way to terrorist, guerrilla captain, and martyr … seemed … a reasonable and moral response to the times.”

The times are the point. John Brown seemed a madman; he shocked and repelled many. It was convenient and desirable for many to label him insane.

But he had lots of company. The very nature of the conflict drove everyone to some degree of madness. Slavery was based on a mad conception of humanity and rights. Those who insisted on its continuation as a matter of right were mad. Those who manufactured defenses for it out of scripture were mad. The reign of terror that kept slavery in place was mad.

And the madness–what Banks calls the war between the races–didn’t die with John Brown or the Civil War. It lived on through a century of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and segregation. It survived the Civil Rights era and into the age when the same United States that just a few generations ago enslaved African Americans as a matter of course elected a black man president. (You don’t think this race madness continues? Ha. What do you think the immigration “debate” is about?)

I read another Brown book this year: “John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights.” It’s by David S. Reynolds, a cultural historian from New York. As his book’s subtitle suggests, he makes lots of claims for Brown and his legacy. Many, especially the arguments for his overarching importance in sparking the war and in somehow “seeding” the civil rights movement, are a stretch. But one premise I will readily buy: John Brown was sane. And yes, as Banks’s Owen Brown says, “terrible things about race and human nature, especially here in North America, are true.”

Friday Night Walk


A shop on 18th Street, Potrero Hill, San Francisco. Far from the Black Friday crowd. Taken during my walk from KQED, Mariposa and Bryant, to the Ferry Building, Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street.

Rosy-Fingered Black Friday


Dawn in Berkeley. Temperature: 38 degrees. Somewhere or other, the malls are thronged. Me, I’m in sweatpants and a flannel shirt, blogging. (But don’t get the wrong idea: Headed into the office now).

Posted in Berkeley: Lost Belt & Buckle


Spotted during our Thanksgiving morning gambole with The Dog (what’s open in Berkeley this morning: Peet’s Coffee, where we bought a couple of pounds of beans; the CVS drug store (formerly Long’s, even more formerly Bill’s), Masa’s pastry emporium, Safeway, Andronico’s, a stray cafe or two).

The best “lost” posters give you a story. This is an elite example of the species:


Belt & Buckle

Brass Buckle with Worn Plating & Rusted Prong

I found the buckle on an abandoned farm in New Brunswick during a trans-continental bike trip in 1971. It was attached to a rotting harness meant for a plow horse. It has great sentimental as well as practical value. (It holds my pants up.) I think it fell out of my car parked near here last Thursday night (Nov. 4). Please contact Jaye Cook @ (707) 888-2978 or (707) 944-9704 or drop it in the mailbox by the door at 1303 M.L.K.


Flash and Report


News of the evening: Our big Bay Area thunderstorm, which actually left a signature on the National Weather Service radar just before 6 p.m.–those orange and reddish areas, which were moving from southwest to northeast. We had lots of rumbling and banging here with a couple of close lightning strikes–within about half a mile judging by the short delay between flash and report. Later on, the area of turbulent weather, which dumped a half-inch or more of rain in less than an hour and led to urban flood advisories, moved off to the south and east. Now, we’ve got big banks of clouds moving in off the ocean, occasional showers, and occasional clear breaks that reveal a full moon (OK–technically, the moon’s at opposition and really full tomorrow at 9:29 a.m. I can’t tell the difference.)

[Update, 1:35 am. Sunday: Wow. Now hail is pounding down, and we got one big flash and a long, loud roll of thunder. The Dog is growling and barking and threatening to tear the ass off the weather.]]

[Update: 11:15 a.m. Sunday: Beautiful morning after the storm. A couple blocks south of here, PG&E is working on a transformer struck by lightning last night–apparently the flash I saw before 6 p.m. The utility had four or five trucks on the scene and maybe half a dozen guys working. A nearby resident was out complaining that the power had been out since the lightning strike and asking for reasssurances that PG&E was going to get the lights back on quickly. “Every time there’s a storm, the power goes out right here,” he said.]

Friday Notebook

New York Times Correction of the Week. Truly, no one does the mea culpa like the Times. In today’s paper:

Because of an editing error, the Reuters Breakingviews column last Friday, about the deal-making of the private equity investor J. Christopher Flowers misstated the release date of “Rock Me Amadeus,” the only major hit in the United States by the pop star Falco, to whom Mr. Flowers was compared as a one-hit wonder. It was 1986, not 1980.

Life and Death of a Hero Dog. Also from the Times, the story of a dog who once confronted a suicide bomber trying to attack a U.S. barracks in Afghanistan and how she wound up being euthanized by mistake in an Arizona animal “shelter.” Plenty of anger, sadness, regret, and pathos in this story, but here’s one passage that stuck out:

Target, not used to being confined, escaped Friday afternoon from Sergeant Young’s home in the San Tan Valley area in central Arizona. After being spotted on the loose, she was reported to Pinal County’s animal control. Target was brought to the county animal shelter in Florence, where she was held just like any other run-of-the-mill stray. Because she had no tag, microchip or license with the county, her photo went up on the shelter’s Web site on Friday in hopes that her owner might respond.

No tag, no microchip, no license? Well, you gotta give yourself a better shot at getting your dog back if the unthinkable–strike that–perfectly predictable happens and he or she goes wandering.

Michael Lewis: “What we’ve got now is socialism for the capitalists and capitalism for everyone else.” (OK–I can’t find this online, and I’m not 100 percent sure it’s the exact quote, but he said it during a recently aired appearance at City Arts and Lectures–a comment on the government’s rescue of the financial industry and the financial industry’s grim workings on the rest of us.)

Roger Ebert: “As a nation we once said, give us the facts and we’ll make up our own minds. Now we say, spare us the facts and make up our minds for us.” (From today’s post, about the new political attacks on NPR, on Ebert’s blog.)

Berkeley: Memorial Stadium


A friend had tickets to last Saturday’s game between the local college’s gridiron squad, the University of California’s Golden Bears, and the top-ranked University of Oregon Ducks. Great game. The local lads almost pulled off an upset before succumbing to the insistent nibbling of the visiting waterfowl (score: 15-13).

There’s construction at the stadium,, which is built directly on a fault at the mouth of a canyon in the Berkeley Hills. The current project doesn’t address the high seismic risk to the stadium. Instead, the university is building a training center for Cal sportsmen and sportswomen (it’s called the Student Athlete High-Performance Center). [Update 11/19: I was wrong about this: the bracing illustrated here is part of the larger stadium renovation project that will get under way in earnest after the season’s final home game, against Washington on November 27. Details here.]

In large part, the new center will be The House that Tedford Built. That’s Jeff Tedford, the coach who ushered in an era of winning football at Cal (eight straight winning seasons, seven straight bowl appearances; both streaks could end this year). The university–the Athletic Department, the administration, and the alumni, not necessarily in that order–were so gaga over Tedford’s prowess that they essentially promised they’d build the training center to get him to stay in Berkeley. Cal is also paying him north of $2 million a year–details of his contract here (PDF)–despite being so strapped for cash it has raised undergraduate tuition about 45 percent over the last three years. That’s big-time college sports.

The stadium construction, though. Well, the temporary measures outside that exterior shell are kind of cool. memorialstadium111310a.jpg