Monday, August 31, 2009

Vernacular Vacation


Dana, my niece who is dying to design and build a house, reads Dwell, a pretty cool magazine I have noticed when rifling through bookstore magazine stands.
I uncovered this quirk about Dana after we spent time together in a car with my immediate family on a two plus-day drive from Michigan to Nova Scotia, culminating at the Inn on the Intervale near Judique on Cape Breton Island. The Inn is the summer hostel, or more correctly resort, of my father-in-law Duncan and companion Carol whose "Rest By the River" they are anxious to share with any and everyone, but most especially their children and their progeny. My discovery occurred while unloading the car. As I stood in the foyer, I flipped through the magazine and the Editor's letter caught my eye.

There in a highlight was the word locavore, a term with which I am intimately familiar given my status as a farmer's market denizen, not to mention the fact that my daughter Melanie was reading Michael Pollen's Omnivore's Dilemma and the companion book to the new documentary film Food, Inc. during the road trip. So what does eating local have to do with houses, which obviously is the topic of Dwell? It turns out that the main feature of the July/August issue is vernacular buildings; the Editor deftly traced a connection between the trends for eating closer to home to the local flavors appearing more and more often in the designs and building materials of homes themselves.

At that moment I had an epiphany—I was standing in a vernacular building that was perhaps an even finer example of the concept than those featured in the pages of the periodical in my hand. And just like the last visit we made to the Inn this idea of site-specific-ness infected nearly everything we did. Only now we had a name for it-a Vernacular Vacation!
All about this place speaks to one thing, the place itself. The more obvious unique qualities are plainly advertised in the fact that this Island housed the cast off highlander victims of the Scottish clearances of the late 1700 and early 1800s. The remoteness served as something of an incubator for the Gaelic language and the musical traditions of the fiddle, piano and step dancing whose pure preservation has only been disrupted in the last couple of generations by the insinuation of modern conveniences and mechanical connections to the mainland. But in the locality of the Intervale, the modern world is left behind by the acts of a couple of people that unwittingly conspired to enable an immersion in all those things that are truly Cape Breton because of Cape Breton.

The Inn, ( the brainchild of Duncan MacEachern, started out to be a home that would accommodate all 8 of his stateside sons at one time. Enter Carole Levens, the Minnesota Swede with an energy quotient that would have inspired the white tornado. She immediately saw the potential for making Duncan's dream pay him back, in a way. (Also, being the practical one, she realized that getting the 8 boys and their families, who are spread out from coast to coast, coordinated for a simultaneous romp to this remote location- literally at the edge of the world-for any length of time would be a rare feat, if indeed it ever could come to fruition, so they simply had to find a use for all those bedrooms.)

Boasting 13 sleeping rooms each with its own bathroom, plus common sitting rooms, decks and balconies, the Inn itself represents all that is the best of Cape Breton. [fn1]Using Juniper timber { from the property, the three story lodge has a rustic yet refined sense that is reflected in the hand hewn wood paneling and literally in the hand-glossed shiny wood floors. And for those with longer term intentions, across the drive is the 3 story apartment building with 3 self -contained 1- bedroom units complete with kitchens.

Rounding out the buildings on site is the newest which ironically looks the oldest. The "barn" complete with red siding provides workshop space for maintenance projects, furniture restoration and crafts. Upstairs the loft boasts a wide open space for lolling in a hammock, having a party or just standing in front of the hay door to take in the view of the brook. While we were there a newly assembled bonfire pit situated just to the east of the barn appeared to be yearning to roast marshmallows for S'mores. Although we never got around to making S'mores, we did take advantage of the crafting opportunities and came away with vernacular souvenirs.

Virtually everything in each building is from local materials. The ambiance they create is merely an extension of the beauty that makes up the landscape, which is lush and moist, woody and piney, with wild flowers dotting the deep browns, blues and greens.

The brook, known as the Intervale, is actually a river that meanders just below the spanning decks that drape across the south side of the lodge (there are constant debates about whether this is the front or the back as one can enter from the south or north but the parking is off the north and so too is the foyer-perhaps there simply is no back). Notwithstanding the opinions of the local EPA, Duncan's vision let him to see the crook in the brook as it turns on its way to the ocean as not just a sink but a pool for swimming and a pond for fishing.

He had a screen building of weathered wood erected on the edge at a prime location for fishing, sunning or just sitting and taking it all in. My sister-in-law and I found it amenable to a discussion of our life challenges and paths to better understanding (in other words it was a nice place for a bitch fest-not that we have anything to complain about).

Speaking of screen buildings, Carole has a seaside lot not far down the Shore Road just a couple of miles from the Inn. Although the road is more like a path, given the harsh winters and proximity to the raging ocean, the challenging trek is more than worthwhile. The property overlooks a rocky beach scattered with the most interesting seaweed that when bleached in the sun is a dead ringer for shredded paper, but is otherwise brown and ubiquitous amongst a large variety of ocean-ground rocks and formations.
Investigating the geology and the tide pools offers a near career. A larger version screen house is perched above the St. Lawrence Bay whose enormity gives one the impression that it is indeed the North Atlantic. Although so far she can't find anyone will to give up their cushy lodge beds, Carole dreams of spending a whole night there under the Plexiglas roof section thoughtfully installed for optimizing star gazing, which in this remote area is a phenomenon in today's light polluted world.

Almost as proof our evening sky scan in anticipation of Hurricane Bill revealed an enormous big dipper just above the horizon punctuated by a falling star that seemed to appear on cue. We heard tales of views of the aurora borealis but apparently our timing was not quite right, though Mars was closer than it will be for a few centuries and its intense glinting assured it was not missed.

All of this made it very difficult to leave the property of course. We had lots to do and our own slice of heaven without ever going to the main road. But the famous Cabot Trail[fn2] called out to the newcomers who joined our adventure and we took a day to drive the entire circumference. In the French territory, an oddly treeless area, in sight of the big water, a woman named Ethel has established a village of scarecrows that cannot be missed. Further up the trail the landscape becomes at once much more harsh and beautiful. The rugged rock formations suggest a major formation upheaval as the road passes through the National Park offering challenging inclines. There are numerous hiking opportunities along the way to visit falls or scale to heightened vistas or just to walk among 350 year old maple and other enormous tree varieties. In fact this diversion caused us to literally miss the boat for whale watching off the northern tip of the Island. We have managed to make this a couple of times before and were never disappointed. Oh well, our charges have something to come back for.

Our trip was not without wildlife highlights however, as we noticed a clump of cars pulled off the road. There, casually grazing away with her calf was a mother moose, looking a bit worse for the wear in that she was very skinning, we surmised from the rigors of nursing. Her spawn looked like he was about ready to make it on his own, however.

The Trail circles through some amazing landscape and offers a stop at one of the most inviting and beautiful beaches you would ever want to partake of. The Black Brook Beach features large dark rock formations, smooth gorgeous sand, manageable waves and a grassy picnic area overlooking the relatively secluded spot. We could have stayed all day, but we just had to show off the gorgeous Keltic Lodge, which is owned by Canada and run as a resort. It has its own beach, spectacular golf course and wonderfully wooded 2.5 mile hike out to the point in the water called Middle head which I have done in the past.

Our last stop as we came around the Cabot Trail was the Gaelic College, St. Ann's. This is the heart of the preservation of Gaelic culture. Complete with its own museum of the history of the clans which features an exhibit on the giant McCaskill, a local celeb of enormous size whose tragically short life consisted of exhibiting the strength he mastered based on his [un]natural condition, the College is the premier world location for Gaelic language and customs. The curriculum includes music and crafts. As noted, the isolation afforded the Gaelic people who unwittingly found themselves here has served to ensure that the purity of the Gaelic spirit has seen less evolution than elsewhere. Fortunately, the founders of St. Ann's had the foresight to recognize that education is the key to maintaining that piece of history.

The final leg of the Cabot Trail takes you past Baddeck, the most picturesque of places situated on the Bras D'or Lakes. This is where Alexander Graham Bell summered in a gorgeous home overlooking the lake where he tested the first hydroplanes. Unfortunately by this time we were out of time and had to pass on the Bell Museum and a stroll along the lake to look at the boats.

In fact we were headed home for another great dinner brought to us from the sea and the shore of Cape Breton Island. For the bulk of the visit we did the term locavore proud. Duncan's giant vegetable garden was just on the verge of maturity when we arrived. His crop of asparagus, in its newly designed wood container that replaced the old ratty one that so reminded Carole of a casket because of its ominous shape, was waning but in its place were wonderful yellow beans that tasted at once like the sea and the sun. Their crunchy sweetness argued against cooking them, but we did have them both ways. The lettuces, green leaf, green head and romaine, were in their prime. Snow peas were busting out all over and zucchini offered blossoms as well as tender tubes of delight. Leeks were gaining in size and the potato plants survived an attempted onslaught by the potato beetle which Duncan make short work of. The only disappointment was the lag from the raspberry bushes.

But not to worry, there were yards of rhubarb and best of all it was the height of blueberry season! Our first morning we took a team ranging in age from 10 to 83 to the blueberry field and in about an hour had more blueberries than the 14 of us could eat in a week. Because of the volume the task never reached the point of tedium. As Sylvia, the groundskeeper's wife pointed out when she advised us of the plethora of fruit still remaining down the road at Dixie Walker's place, you merely had to comb your hand through the bushes like you would run your fingers through your hair, to come up with an entire handful. And that we did-which led to glorious mornings for everyone but my hubby Doug who was constantly in demand as a semiprofessional pancake maker to work his magic one more time. He got so good at it that he expanded his repertoire to waffles one day. Topped with real butter that Doug melts in as the cake sizzles on side b after the flip and drizzled with local maple syrup, each bite offered a sparkling freshness and purity that stayed on everyone's mind all morning long (and apparently in their dreams as well).
Imagine a whole week of dinners consisting of just caught lobster, snow crab, halibut, brook trout with flaky pink flesh the color of salmon, alongside a pile of just picked veggies and salads. Of course bread is big up there and Melanie
made a loaf of beer bread with the local India Pale Ale branded Alexander Keith's (pronounced Keats in the vernacular accent) and a cranberry, nut wheat bread besides. One the night of the Storyteller's Ceilidh (gaelic for party) a quick dinner of Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad with fresh made dressing using the local mustard pickles and white wine rather than Dijon met rave reviews.

And during Hurricane Bill's last gasp which kept us indoors for an entire day due to rain, we braved the weather to purloin a leek for a frittata with zucchini that featured cheese handmade in the monastery just across the causeway that was delivered to us by Sister Anne. Together with homemade hash browns as well as a yeasty fresh baked wheat bread, the baby bowls of blueberries splashed with cream perfectly rounded out of this summer storm meal.

Great use was also made of the herb garden that nestled in the myriad potted flowers that adorned all the porches and their railings. No wonder a bunch of bees was attempting to set up house on the log right outside the entry doors; they were next to a virtual pollen warehouse! We got our exercise moving the massive pots back and forth to protect them from the potential hurricane force winds that thankfully never quite materialized.
As abundant as the veggies were we did supplement with some fresh purchased produce as the tomatoes were not even close to being ripe. And we made cauliflower grits and julienne d parsnips roasted in olive oil and a dusting of cinnamon.
The best eating came on the last night. Earlier, under the tutelage of his father, Doug unearthed the bountiful potatoes that lay just beneath the soil. Once cleaned and scrubbed, tossed with olive oil and coarse salt, they roasted in the oven to al dente perfection. These orbs of gold actually had a discernible flavor all their own that seemed to enhance that of the seafood that served as their table companions. Duncan did not oversell these little gems when he exclaimed that they would be unlike anything potato you have ever had before.
Lots of stories can be told of this unique place that once came in second to the fjords of Norway as a National Geographic best vacation location. In fact we have a much earlier issue of that magazine in which Doug's grandparents are featured in a photo illustrating a story investigation the Gaelic life style of Cape Breton. We also were lucky enough to learn of a project that had recorded those folks signing the traditional songs that have been made available on the internet. Doug got chills listening to his grandfather Duncan Gillis' voice come over the computer speakers.
The storytelling tradition is being maintained in the town of Judique through its gallery that features old black and white photos of local families, maps of land ownership from the 1940's and an outhouse photo exhibit that enlivens the walls of the restroom. Once a month the gallery is host to a Ceilidh (after all it is situated on the Ceilidh Trail as designated by the Doers and Dreamers guide – see footnote). The Ceilidh we attended was nothing if not a talent show to rival America's got talent. It featured an 85 year old fiddle player, an Irish orator, an aging step dancer, a refined fiddler/emcee and the piece de resistance, Sadie. As she was celebrating her 68th wedding anniversary that weekend (to a Frenchman from Cheticamp, the French community about an hour north, who says he has never been accepted in the Scottish community but has managed to hang out there for nearly 3 quarters of a century despite his awful toupee), she was not as prepared as she might have been, or so she said. Nevertheless she calmly took the stage, notes and magnifying glass in hand and proceeded to regale us with tales of outhouse mishaps from her past. She also described an uncanny incident involving horses and buggies and mistaken identities. Sadie was dead pan of course and for a large part of her presentation had the audience reeling, although it was never quite clear if humor or history were her intended topics. In grand Nova Scotian fashion and despite it being 9:30 at night, the gala was followed by a lunch complete with tea and coffee and quite lovely at that. We dallied so long at the lunch that we lost steam for heading up to Mabou for the dance.

How, you may ask, could it have gotten much more vernacular than this? I haven't even gotten to the vernacular souvenir yet. You may recall mention of the barn including a reference to crafts. DIY, after all is all the rage. And Carole is in the perfect target market for Martha Stewart-esque living. In fact, I recalled my first MS exposure upon setting foot in the Intervale barn. It was that early PBS show where she was planning the perfect thanksgiving and going through all of the options, which of course included the meal location, which of course led her outside and to the concept of building a barn like structure to house and authenticate the ultimate American holiday experience, inspired no doubt by the relative proximity of her Connecticut property to Jamestown. The upshot was her husband acquiesced and built the damn thing, divorcing her just minutes later.
Carole and I had cooked up a craft gift suitable for my Spa Maiden crowd who will be making the Palm Springs Labor Day pilgrimage shortly after my return. We surveyed the barn for the proper working conditions and in appropriate Martha fashion immediately summoned Skippy, the groundskeeper to begin the preparations. Skippy made on the diagonal slices of birch wood with its elegant bark and soothing white interior and sanded them down and dipped them in polyurethane. He then cut a bunch of young alder branches and stripped the leaves. This was our cue to haul out the glue gun. We attached 2 inch sections of alder in a parallel pattern across the top of the birch and re-dipped them in polyurethane. Then we gathered up all the hand made soaps that Carole purchases from their creator who lives in Whycocogamaugh (about 40 km away) and cut pieces to fit atop the newly made soap dishes. We wrapped a slice of parchment and secured them with twine. Voila! A vernacular souvenir especially made for my spa peeps. What could be cooler? Needless to say, Carole was in hog heaven.

Being no stranger to the glue gun she has implemented many projects of this type over the years. Each of the boys were the lucky recipients of a slice of the juniper that house was built with festooned with a twig tattoo of the family name, not unlike the twig grate for our soap dishes. Carole took this and writ it large by doing a huge one that hangs above the entry door at the Inn proudly proclaiming its name. Here she is posing with Duncan and her son Michael's family beneath her work.

What could be better for a vernacular home than vernacular signage? About all I can think of is a vernacular vacation. I think you might agree? Thank you, thank you Duncan and Carole.

[fn1] As Duncan described one morning over blueberry pancakes, it took some research. Juniper was plentiful at the property and a likely candidate. What he learned was that because it does not lose its sap as it dries, like most wood, it can be used while in a relatively green state because it will not shrink when it dries. So building could commence once the logs were cut and trimmed. The catch is that this same attribute is a detriment in that it causes the log to twist into crazy shapes. To overcome this requires a series of heavy duty bolts to retard this tendency and tame the wood into staying put.

[fn2] The Nova Scotians have done a masterful job of organizing the tourism aspects of their province. Because of the distances between villages are pretty great mass transit is nonexistent so any tour is vehicle dependent. The entirety of the area is divided into “trails” with various themes, such as the Fleur de Lis Trail, Marine Trail, and Cabot Trail. These are laid out in the annually updated guide book entitled Doers and Dreamers where for each trail there are maps and listings of points of interest, entertainment, lodging, camping sites and anything else a tourist would need to know. This guide is quite efficient and compact and very cleverly done.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

RIP Anna Ruth Wilky

Although her immediate family chose to keep this a secret and allegedly could not afford to publish the obituary in the Arizona Republic, the least I could do was to post this here. Anna Ruth was my father's sister (the middle child and only girl in a group of 5 siblings) and an ever present member of the family until just several years ago. I have been waiting for her visit to pick up her volume of her mother's family history which I have been holding since our last family reunion. Its been nearly four years.
As noted she pursued handicrafts and she crocheted a number of keepsakes for the infant Melanie.
Anna Ruth Wilky

(December 28, 1935 - August 5, 2009)
Anna Ruth Wilky entered into life December 28, 1935 in Phoenix, Arizona and entered into rest August 5, 2009 in Sun City West, Arizona.
She is survived by: daughters; Laura (Micheal) Allen & Lou Anna (Jon Christopher) Selby, 3 grandchildren; Joshua, Jon & Colton, 2 great grandchildren; Whyatt & Sydney and Dylan who will be making his arrival on the 20th of this month.
She liked sewing, crocheting and crafts. She was an avid reader who especially liked romance novels and American history.
Celebration of life service 2:00 pm, Sunday, August 9, 2009 at Crystal Rose Funeral Home 9155 W. Van Buren St., Tolleson, AZ

Channeling Camille

This is an excerpt from the monthly column by Camille Paglia that may help you understand why I changed my political party affiliation last month to NO PREFERENCE. This is a fine example of how and why the 2 party system has run its course and unless that changes soon we will continue to wallow in the eddy of stagnation (this is a purposeful mixing of seemingly mutually exclusive metaphors that describes exactly what it is-circling the drain but never quite going down it).

Obama's healthcare horror
Heads should roll -- beginning with Nancy Pelosi's!

By Camille Paglia

Aug. 12, 2009 | Buyer's remorse? Not me. At the North American summit in Guadalajara this week, President Obama resumed the role he is best at -- representing the U.S. with dignity and authority abroad. This is why I, for one, voted for Obama and continue to support him. The damage done to U.S. prestige by the feckless, buffoonish George W. Bush will take years to repair. Obama has barely begun the crucial mission that he was elected to do.

Having said that, I must confess my dismay bordering on horror at the amateurism of the White House apparatus for domestic policy. When will heads start to roll? I was glad to see the White House counsel booted, as well as Michelle Obama's chief of staff, and hope it's a harbinger of things to come. Except for that wily fox, David Axelrod, who could charm gold threads out of moonbeams, Obama seems to be surrounded by juvenile tinhorns, bumbling mediocrities and crass bully boys.

Case in point: the administration's grotesque mishandling of healthcare reform, one of the most vital issues facing the nation. Ever since Hillary Clinton's megalomaniacal annihilation of our last best chance at reform in 1993 (all of which was suppressed by the mainstream media when she was running for president), Democrats have been longing for that happy day when this issue would once again be front and center.

But who would have thought that the sober, deliberative Barack Obama would have nothing to propose but vague and slippery promises -- or that he would so easily cede the leadership clout of the executive branch to a chaotic, rapacious, solipsistic Congress? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom I used to admire for her smooth aplomb under pressure, has clearly gone off the deep end with her bizarre rants about legitimate town-hall protests by American citizens. She is doing grievous damage to the party and should immediately step down.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Obama's aggressive endorsement of a healthcare plan that does not even exist yet, except in five competing, fluctuating drafts, makes Washington seem like Cloud Cuckoo Land. The president is promoting the most colossal, brazen bait-and-switch operation since the Bush administration snookered the country into invading Iraq with apocalyptic visions of mushroom clouds over American cities.

You can keep your doctor; you can keep your insurance, if you're happy with it, Obama keeps assuring us in soothing, lullaby tones. Oh, really? And what if my doctor is not the one appointed by the new government medical boards for ruling on my access to tests and specialists? And what if my insurance company goes belly up because of undercutting by its government-bankrolled competitor? Face it: Virtually all nationalized health systems, neither nourished nor updated by profit-driven private investment, eventually lead to rationing.

I just don't get it. Why the insane rush to pass a bill, any bill, in three weeks? And why such an abject failure by the Obama administration to present the issues to the public in a rational, detailed, informational way? The U.S. is gigantic; many of our states are bigger than whole European nations. The bureaucracy required to institute and manage a nationalized health system here would be Byzantine beyond belief and would vampirically absorb whatever savings Obama thinks could be made. And the transition period would be a nightmare of red tape and mammoth screw-ups, which we can ill afford with a faltering economy.

As with the massive boondoggle of the stimulus package, which Obama foolishly let Congress turn into a pork rut, too much has been attempted all at once; focused, targeted initiatives would, instead, have won wide public support. How is it possible that Democrats, through their own clumsiness and arrogance, have sabotaged healthcare reform yet again? Blaming obstructionist Republicans is nonsensical because Democrats control all three branches of government. It isn't conservative rumors or lies that are stopping healthcare legislation; it's the justifiable alarm of an electorate that has been cut out of the loop and is watching its representatives construct a tangled labyrinth for others but not for themselves. No, the airheads of Congress will keep their own plush healthcare plan -- it's the rest of us guinea pigs who will be thrown to the wolves.
With the Republican party leaderless and in backbiting disarray following its destruction by the ideologically incoherent George W. Bush, Democrats are apparently eager to join the hara-kiri brigade. What looked like smooth coasting to the 2010 election has now become a nail-biter. Both major parties have become a rats' nest of hypocrisy and incompetence. That, combined with our stratospheric, near-criminal indebtedness to China (which could destroy the dollar overnight), should raise signal flags. Are we like late Rome, infatuated with past glories, ruled by a complacent, greedy elite, and hopelessly powerless to respond to changing conditions?

What does either party stand for these days? Republican politicians, with their endless scandals, are hardly exemplars of traditional moral values. Nor have they generated new ideas for healthcare, except for medical savings accounts, which would be pathetically inadequate in a major crisis for anyone earning at or below a median income.

And what do Democrats stand for, if they are so ready to defame concerned citizens as the "mob" -- a word betraying a Marie Antoinette delusion of superiority to ordinary mortals. I thought my party was populist, attentive to the needs and wishes of those outside the power structure. And as a product of the 1960s, I thought the Democratic party was passionately committed to freedom of thought and speech.

But somehow liberals have drifted into a strange servility toward big government, which they revere as a godlike foster father-mother who can dispense all bounty and magically heal all ills. The ethical collapse of the left was nowhere more evident than in the near total silence of liberal media and Web sites at the Obama administration's outrageous solicitation to private citizens to report unacceptable "casual conversations" to the White House. If Republicans had done this, there would have been an angry explosion by Democrats from coast to coast. I was stunned at the failure of liberals to see the blatant totalitarianism in this incident, which the president should have immediately denounced. His failure to do so implicates him in it.

As a libertarian and refugee from the authoritarian Roman Catholic church of my youth, I simply do not understand the drift of my party toward a soulless collectivism. This is in fact what Sarah Palin hit on in her shocking image of a "death panel" under Obamacare that would make irrevocable decisions about the disabled and elderly. When I first saw that phrase, headlined on the Drudge Report, I burst out laughing. It seemed so over the top! But on reflection, I realized that Palin's shrewdly timed metaphor spoke directly to the electorate's unease with the prospect of shadowy, unelected government figures controlling our lives. A death panel not only has the power of life and death but is itself a symptom of a Kafkaesque brave new world where authority has become remote, arbitrary and spectral. And as in the Spanish Inquisition, dissidence is heresy, persecuted and punished.

Surely, the basic rule in comprehensive legislation should be: First, do no harm. The present proposals are full of noble aims, but the biggest danger always comes from unforeseen and unintended consequences. Example: the American incursion into Iraq, which destabilized the region by neutralizing Iran's rival and thus enormously enhancing Iran's power and nuclear ambitions.

What was needed for reform was an in-depth analysis, buttressed by documentary evidence, of waste, fraud and profiteering in the healthcare, pharmaceutical and insurance industries. Instead what we've gotten is a series of facile, vulgar innuendos about how doctors conduct their practice, as if their primary motive is money. Quite frankly, the president gives little sense of direct knowledge of medical protocols; it's as if his views are a tissue of hearsay and scattershot worst-case scenarios.

Of course, it didn't help matters that, just when he needed maximum momentum on healthcare, Obama made the terrible gaffe of declaring that, even without his knowing the full facts, Cambridge, Mass., police had acted "stupidly" in arresting a friend of his, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. Obama's automatic identification with the pampered Harvard elite (wildly unpopular with most sensible people), as well as his insulting condescension toward an officer doing his often dangerous duty, did serious and perhaps irreparable damage to the president's standing. The strained, prissy beer summit in the White House garden afterward didn't help. Is that the Obama notion of hospitality? Another staff breakdown.

Both Gates and Obama mistakenly assumed that the original incident at Gates' house was about race, when it was about class. It was the wealthy, lordly Gates who committed the first offense by instantly and evidently hysterically defaming the character of the officer who arrived at his door to investigate the report of a break-in. There was no excuse for Gates' loud and cheap charges of racism, which he should have immediately apologized for the next day, instead of threatening lawsuits and self-aggrandizing television exposés. On the other hand, given that Cambridge is virtually a company town, perhaps police headquarters should have dispatched a moderator to the tumultuous scene before a small, disabled Harvard professor was clapped in handcuffs and marched off to jail. But why should an Ivy League panjandrum be treated any differently from the rest of us hoi polloi?

Class rarely receives honest attention in the American media, as demonstrated by the reporting on a June incident at a swimming pool in the Philadelphia suburbs. When the director of the Valley Swim Club in Montgomery County cancelled its agreement with several urban day camps to use its private pool, the controversy was portrayed entirely in racial terms. There were uninvestigated allegations of remarks about "black kids" made by white mothers who ordered their children out of the pool, and the racial theme was intensified by the director's inept description of the "complexion" of the pool having been changed -- which may simply have been a whopper of a Freudian slip.

Having followed the coverage in the Philadelphia media, I have lingering questions about how much of that incident was race and how much was social class. Urban working-class and suburban middle-class children often have quite different styles of play -- as I know from present observation as well as from my Syracuse youth, when I regularly biked to the public pool in Thornden Park. Kids of all races from downtown Syracuse neighborhoods were much rougher and tougher, and for self-preservation you had to stay out of their way! Otherwise, you'd get knocked to the concrete or dunked when they heedlessly jumped off the diving board onto our heads in the crowded pool.

In general, middle-class children today are more closely supervised at pools because the family can afford to have a non-working parent at home -- a luxury that working-class kids rarely have. What happened at the Valley Swim Club, whose safety infrastructure was evidently also overwhelmed by too many visiting kids who were non-swimmers, may have been a clash of classes rather than races. Were the mothers who pulled their kids out of the pool that day really reacting to skin color or what they, accurately or not, perceived to be an overcrowded, dangerous disorder? The incontrovertible offense in all this, which went unmentioned in the national media, was the closure for budgetary reasons by the city of Philadelphia this summer of 27 of its 73 public pools. There is no excuse for that kind of draconian curtailment of basic recreational facilities for working-class families, sweltering in the urban summer heat....