broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

Archive for the month “September, 2016”

My Little Archaeopteryx


The first time I learned about archaeopteryx, it was when I was a child.  I loved dinosaurs. In odd continuity to my adulthood, I had a childhood passion for nonfiction.  One of my favorite books was a dinosaur book with a green glossy cover.  The book contained archaeopteryx towards the beginning.  The fossil was fascinating and beautiful.  Its body arched backwards with the elegance of a ballerina.  The fossil was unique because it had impressions of feathers.  It was a link between birds and dinosaurs.  Although it didn’t feature prominently in my dinosaur book, I committed the name and a few facts to my memory.  In my dinosaur book, archaeopteryx was considered the first bird.


Years later, I reconnected with archaeopteryx while I was in London.  In my early 20s, I spent a semester in Ireland.  Afterwards, I explored the UK a little, which involved a few days in London.  I ended up at the Museum of Natural History, which, unknown to me, happened to be hosting an Archaeopteryx exhibit.  I happened upon the special exhibition room with astonishment and delight.  This was it!  The museum had obtained a German specimen of archaeopteryx in 1862, though it usually is not on display.  This fossil was accompanied by a small collection of other German archaeopteryx fossils, along with the Chinese “fuzzy raptor.”  I wandered through the room, awestruck by my good fortune, as the exhibit was scheduled to end later that month.  It is still one of my favorite travel memories and one of the top things I have seen in my lifetime.

Another opportunity to see feathered dinosaurs arose when I was in China, staying with my friend Rose.  Beijing’s Geological Museum of China hosts a collection of feathered dinosaurs from Liaoning province.  Just as archaeopteryx was a groundbreaking fossil discovery of the 1800s, the Liaoning fossils were groundbreaking in the late 1900s (late 1990s to 2000s).  The less easy to remember sinosauropteryx was discovered there in the mid 1990s.  It was the first non-avian dinosaur with filament like feathers.  It was a downy dinosaur.  This discovery implied that all dinosaurs may have had feathers.  Volcanic activity in the area preserved the fossils very well, leaving ashy impressions of feathers.  This has allowed scientists to learn more about the evolution of feathers.  Feathers evolved much earlier than thought and were much more common.  My own impression was that the fossils were not as pretty as my original archaeopteryx.  They were dark and sooty.  Still, the fossils were fascinating and plentiful.  They were also more horrific.  The fossils looked more like mummies or freeze dried birds than bony impressions from a time long ago.  I would still say that this was another one of my top travel highlights.  The Great Wall might be impressive, but what is more impressive than the vastness of Earth’s history and the mysteries of all the life that existed millions of years before our own lives?




I’ve been thinking about getting an archaeopteryx tattoo for a long time.  It has a lot of meaning to me.  It represents my childhood curiosities and hopes for the future.  Like many children I wanted to be a paleontologist.  However, I didn’t know the word for paleontologist, so I mistakenly called it “archeologist.”  I even dressed up in a khaki outfit and brought cow bones to my kindergarten class, for a career themed show-and-tell as an “archeologist.”  No one corrected the error.  Not that being an archeologist wouldn’t be cool.  It also represents some of the neat things I have seen while traveling.  Finally, as an atheist, it has meaning to me as the original archaeopteryx was seen as important evidence of evolution.  In a time when evolution was a new concept, archaeopteryx offered this very clear link between dinosaurs and birds.  All of the feathered dinosaurs have offered important insights about evolution.  And though the new discoveries have made archaeopteryx less important (or just one of many feathered dinosaurs, and certainly not the first), it is still the most recognizable and memorable.


The main thing that has held me back from getting the tattoo is actually dissatisfaction with my body.  I wanted to get the tattoo on the underside of my arm, but fear that my arms look a little too flabby.  The tattoo was going to be a reward for developing awesome arms.  After about two years of waiting, I decided that I am not going to magically become more toned.  Perhaps I should embrace it.  Like the archaeopteryx, I too have wings.  I have tiny little flabs of chicken wings.  We are one.  Alas, I am flightless… and you, archaeopteryx, may have taken flight.

The Sociology of Pumpkins


The Sociology of Pumpkins

H. Bradford, 9/25/2016

For the first time in eight years, I am not in school.  You might think that after all that time I would be a professor, doctor, or lawyer, or at the very least well on my way to becoming one of those things.  Nope.  I’m just a pretty ordinary person.  Not particularly accomplished.  Two master’s degrees, two bachelor’s degrees, student debt, and the growing paranoia that if I am not in school that my brain will start to decay into mush.   I can see it now.  It looks a lot like a Jack-o-Lantern left on a front porch until the following March.  Just a mushy, discolored, vaguely orange, puddle of goop on the steps.  That is my brain.  No, I must rage against this.  I must learn new things.  I must not forget the old things.  Rage, rage against the dying of the light.  Write about things.  Write about sociological things.  Write about pumpkins.  Most of the history in this piece is derived from a book that I just read called Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, by Cindy Ott.  While the book provided a pretty good history of the pumpkin, it did not have much theoretical analysis of pumpkins.  I suppose most people don’t consider the theoretical implications of pumpkins.  So, here is it, a sociological analysis of pumpkins.  My late night rage against my dying life.  You know, since someone has to write about pumpkins…sociologically.   


Cognitive Schema:  

I learned about this in my undergraduate course on Social Psychology.  Basically, according to Eviatar Zerubavel (a name that sounds more like a Final Fantasy villain than a sociologist) we are a part of thought communities which think a certain way about the reality around us.  Our thoughts are shaped by cognitive schemas, or frameworks that pattern how we think about things.   For instance, usually we view butterflies and moths as two separate things.  We lump colorful, pretty, slender, diurnal insects into the category of butterfly.  As the same time, we lump plump, hairy, dull colored, nocturnal insects into the category of moth.  Each of these categories have a shared social meaning.  Women get butterfly tattoos, but probably wouldn’t get a tattoo of a moth.  Gardeners attract butterflies to their gardens, but don’t particularly want to attract moths to their lights.  There are social organizations to protect Monarch butterflies, but one would be hard pressed to even name a single species or family of moths.  Moths and butterflies, as social concepts, are examples of cognitive schemas.  They are social objects with some shared meanings.  Thus, if a fat, dull colored insect flutters by at night, it may get lumped in the moth category.  A brightly colored Luna moth might perplex some people, but generally this lumping and splitting happens without incident.  Things are more complicated with gender or race, wherein cognitive schemas have a greater political and social consequence.  When we think of female we might think: pretty, weak, emotional, passionate, illogical, breasts, long hair, pink, or thousands of other thoughts that create a framework of how we think of women.  Of course, this pigeon holes people, creates difference, divides people, justifies oppression, and ignores all of the gray in-between areas.     

Compared to gender or race, pumpkins are pretty benign in terms of power, but not devoid of it.  The first European colonists to the United States came here with pre-existing ideas about fruits and vegetables.  As such, they classified pumpkins variably as cucumbers, melons, or squash.  Botanically, it is true that a pumpkin is in the same family as cucumbers, melons, and gourds (Cucubitaceae), but socially we make distinctions.  Further, even in the scientific sense, these things are divided by families.  In a pre-scientific taxonomy world, the lines between melons, squash, gourds, and cucumbers were blurry.  Today, pumpkins are viewed as something special and separate from squash, and certainly not a type of cucumber or melon.  Botanically, a pumpkin is, in fact, a squash.  Socially, a pumpkin is above a squash.  No one promotes squash spice lattes or squash pie Blizzards.  Even as a child, I was dubious that my mom’s squash pie was as good as a pumpkin pie.  There was something psychologically different about eating a squash pie compared to its pumpkin counterpart, though this is likely because the squash came from the garden instead of a can.  

With that said, the pumpkin became more than a squash sometime in the mid 1800s.  This is around the time that Halloween and Thanksgiving became popularized as holidays.  It is also a time when the U.S. was moving away from its agrarian roots to a more industrialized society.  The pumpkin emerged as its own entity because of its symbolic value as an icon of plenty, harvest, and rural America.  It also possessed symbolic value as an icon of the North (especially New England) during the Civil War.  The South traditionally used sweet potatoes in pies and desserts, rather than pumpkins.  Abraham Lincoln even made pumpkin pie the national dessert.  Thus, pumpkins were viewed as a food of anti-slavery and a food that represented American history (even though pumpkins were not idealized by colonialists).  It is a similar symbolic value that makes it popular today.  It is an icon of fall, rural living, simplicity, and nostalgia.  It is also a Thanksgiving symbol and symbol of America.  As such, in our American thought community, the pumpkin exists as something more than an winter squash.  Of course, there are other factors that allowed the pumpkin to become a social object that is apart from and above squash, cucumbers, and melons.  


Use Value:

Use Value is a Marxist term which basically means that an object is valuable based upon its usefulness.  For instance, a pencil is valuable because it can be used to write.  A tree has use-value if it provides fruit or shade.  For most of the pumpkin’s history, it was valued for its use-value.  To colonists, it was useful as a food during lean times.  Since pumpkins store well, it could be eaten through the winter.  It was also used to feed animals.  Even as pumpkins became more popular in the 1800s, they were still used for pies and desserts.  Pumpkin farming was not a profitable venture, as even at the end of the 1880s it was still one of the least profitable vegetables-worth about 1/10 of a cent per pound.  In Marxist terms, pumpkins had use value as a food, but very little exchange value as a commodity.   Yet, in the early 1900s, something changed.  Perhaps owing to decline of rural living, there were pumpkin shows and pumpkin growing contests as rural life became a spectacle.  Pumpkins also had value as Halloween decorations.  In the earlier half of the 1900s, pumpkins started to become more profitable as demand increased and canned pumpkin made its use in foods more convenient.  Today, 87% of pumpkins are grown for decorations.  Ornamental pumpkin farmers net about $691 per acre, a modest amount, but still useful in providing income to small scale farmers.  Pumpkin festivals inject money into local economies through tourism and farms themselves are autumn tourist attractions.  Thus, in the last century, pumpkins have largely shifted from having high use value and little exchange value, to higher exchange value and little use value.            


McDonaldization of Society:  

The commodification of the pumpkin can be connected to a trend towards the McDonaldization of society.  George Ritzer coined the word McDonaldization to describe the rationalization and homogenization of society.  This process is the result of four trends: calculability, predictability, control, and efficiency.  A McDonald’s restaurant generally has a standard menu with uniform, predictable service and regimented workforce.  Part of the process of a pumpkin becoming a pumpkin (in the social sense) rather than a winter squash was increased control over the production of pumpkins.  Because most pumpkins today are used for decorations, they must possess qualities which make them predictable, controlled, calculable, and efficient.  For instance, if a farmer grew off colored, lop-sided pumpkins, they might not appeal to consumer visions of what a pumpkin should be.  The classic or standard pumpkin is the Connecticut Field Pumpkin, which is an heirloom pumpkin from the 1700s when pumpkins were still considered melons and cucumbers.  There are several varieties of pumpkins that have been developed from the Connecticut Field Pumpkin, made specifically to appeal to consumer visions of what a pumpkin should be.  Autumn Pride, Casper, Paint-a-pumpkin, Spooktacular, Ghost rider, and Spirit are examples of pumpkin varieties that have been developed because their size, color, and shape conform to consumer expectations.  Varieties like these have been bred to remain orange longer and have sturdy stems for carrying.  That is, they can be relied upon perform in a predictable, controlled, calculable, and efficient manner.    

On the non-decorative end of the spectrum, the predictability of pumpkins is more pronounced.  In order for something to become a commodity, the item in question must have a predictable supply, be transportable or exchangeable, and be profitable to sell.  The industrialization of food made food products more transportable, predictable, uniform, efficient, inexpensive, widespread, and plentiful.  Consider pumpkin pies before industrial agriculture and food.  A person would have to either grow their own ingredients or purchase them locally.  Then, these ingredients would be assembled over the course of hours.  Pumpkins require cutting, gutting, steaming, and peeling.  With the advent of canned pumpkin, a pie could be made easily and cheaply, with more predictable results.  Efficiency, control, predictability, and calculability made products more uniform, which generally appeals to consumers.  For instance, Libby’s (which accounts for 85% of the canned pumpkin market) uses their own variety of Dickinson Pumpkin for the canned pumpkin pie.  Dickinson is a variety of squash that they developed themselves.  These pumpkins actually look more like butternut squashes, but since they are only seen in their canned form this hardly matters.  The company uses fields near their factory to make transportation easier and utilizes smaller contracted farms near their Illinois factory to supply them.  Libby’s provides the seeds to the contracted farmers, but hires other farmers to harvest the pumpkins with machinery that they supply them.  Then, pumpkin loaders are used which can loan a ton of pumpkins onto trucks within 20 minutes.  These are dumped directly onto conveyer belts that move the pumpkins into their factory.  This is all a very predictable, rational, and efficient process.  At the same time, as a labor practice, rationalization increases profits by extracting more surplus value from workers.  If workers are trained minimally, complete tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible, with few mistakes and high output, their labor creates more value for the producer.       



Cultural Capital:


According to Pierre Bourdieu, a person’s status in society depends upon their capital.  But, unlike Marx who viewed capital in a strictly economic sense, Bourdieu believed that capital could exist in a social sense as well.  Of of these forms of social capital is cultural capital, or knowledge, attitudes, education, and skills a person possesses.  The original colonists viewed pumpkins as a low class food or the food of primitive people.  They denigrated the pumpkin as rustic and uncivilized.  By disassociating themselves with the pumpkin, really, they were asserting their difference and superiority over Native Americans.  Later, Europeans looked down upon colonists for eating pumpkins, again as a sign of their backwardness.  The foods that one eats is an example of cultural capital.  That is, anyone who is affluent or powerful should not be eating pumpkins.  The conventions of what one eats and does not eat is a form of cultural capital.  Eating the wrong foods could be a sign of one’s race or social class.  To be with the “in club” of those with power, one must adopt their tastes and habits.  Of course, access to economic capital often determines what one eats.  A poor rural person may have no choice but to eat pumpkins.  A Native American might have genuinely liked to eat pumpkins as there was no negative social sanction for eating them.

Today, things have changed and pumpkins are no longer looked down upon.  However, we are in a society wherein obesity and unhealthy eating habits are a sign of poverty.  Thus, eating healthy foods is a sign of greater cultural capital.  Eating a pumpkin soup or pumpkin and quinoa salad is more respectable than eating a hotdog and fries.  Thus, on one hand, pumpkin could be seen as a sign of cultural capital.  On the other hand, because pumpkin spice has proliferated across various fast food and coffee shop chains, it has come to be seen as common.  It is viewed as both feminine and white….and ordinary.  Things that are feminine have traditionally been looked down upon, though whiteness has usually been viewed positively in our racist society.  Perhaps, the lovers of pumpkin spice are not doing whiteness right.  In our globalized pluralistic society, a truly educated and elite white person should seek out exciting, exotic, ethnic and interesting foods.  A taste for the unknown and an adventurous palate are signs of cultural capital.  While the pumpkin spices: nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon are certainly exotic, as they come from far off places, they have become too ubiquitous to be seen as ethnic.  A person who likes pumpkin spice is therefore seen as provincial or commonplace, much like how pumpkin eaters of the past were looked down upon.  It is also looked down upon for being feminine.   Rape, unequal pay, unpaid labor, sex work, sexual harassment, and domestic violence are all easier to justify if women aren’t viewed as worthwhile to begin with.  


Hypermodernity and Consumption:


Simon Gottschalk argued that we are living in a hypermodern society.  Hypermodernity is characterized by such things as extreme individualism and hyper consumerism.  He also observed that there is a certain narcissism and megalomania embedded in hyper consumerism.  This megalomania is evident in the use of superlatives such as better, bigger, best, most, fastest, etc in advertisement.  Hyper-consumerism itself is characterized by extreme individualism that stomps out social considerations.  I think that the best illustration of this is the phenomenon of the giant pumpkin.  The giant pumpkin originated in the late 1800s as a spectacle at the world’s fairs.  In 1903, the record sized pumpkin was 403 pounds.  In 2010, the record holding pumpkin was 1,810 pounds.  To obtain pumpkins that size, they must be overwatered, overfed, pruned, and shaded.  The pursuit of the giant pumpkin is an inherently individualistic pursuit as it is done to test the boundaries of size, win prize money, and obtain attention.  The ecological and social costs of the inputs, such as fertilizers and water use, for a pumpkin that will never be eaten and can hardly be moved, is not even considered.  

Perhaps applying hypermodernity to giant pumpkins is a bit of a stretch.  However, I do remember watching this TV show back when I was a child.  The show was called Amazing Stories, and in one episode, a woman purchased some special pumpkin seeds from a traveling botanist (which sounds like an awesome job!).  She became obsessed with growing a giant pumpkin, but is cruel to everyone around her.  She is miserable about having lost the contest so many years in a row and convinced that she will finally win.  Indeed, she grows an enormous pumpkin.  However, she has no means to tow it.  She drags it behind a vehicle, destroying it along the way to town.  Even though the pumpkin is disintegrated, she is convinced that it is still the largest pumpkin.  In the end, she sees that everyone bought the special seeds and that everyone else successfully brought their perfect pumpkins to the contest.  She is a loser once again, left with nothing but the tattered remains of her dreams…and the pumpkin.  The episode really spoke to me as a child.  I remember it after all of these years.  In any event, her jealousy and megalomania drives her destroy her pumpkin and herself.  Blinded by her hyper-individualism, she can’t fathom that perhaps the seeds were a trick or notice that others may also be growing pumpkins.  In a way, we live similarly, trying to assert our individual existence through Pinterest projects, the things we buy, or our facebook photos.  Our giant pumpkin is the identity we cultivate.  The water and fertilizer are the things we buy.  In this way, the pumpkin is a symbol of hypermodernity.  Okay, maybe it is still a stretch…


I am sure that I could think of other sociological theories or ideas to connect to pumpkins.  It is actually a fun little exercise and a bit of a challenge to think back at some of my coursework.  Perhaps I could connect pumpkins to Foucault’s power-knowledge, as who has the power to decide what a pumpkin is?  Scientists have a monopoly on defining a pumpkin.  To some degree, the food industry has power to determine what pumpkins are.  Pumpkin contests define the rules to what a pumpkin is or is not.  For instance, a pumpkin must be 80% orange to count as a pumpkin in some contests.  Maybe pumpkins could be examined from a feminist perspective.  Peter Pumpkin eater had a wife that he put in a pumpkin shell to control her!  How about the fact that women must haul their kids to pumpkin patches for photo opportunities.  Or the fact that women are looked down upon for our taste pumpkin spice candles, lattes, ice cream, etc.  I say, there should be no shame. Take back the Spice!  Really, the sociological possibilities are as endless and complex as a long tangle of pumpkin vines.  

Vangarden Fail: Dehydrating Tomatoes



I really want to be awesome at urban gardening.  I want to be the Trotsky of Tomatoes.  The Lenin of Lemon Balm.  The Rosa Luxemburg of Rosemary.  You get the idea.  This is why the garden is called “The Vangarden.”  It is my revolutionary garden.  My vanguard party of gardens.  Unfortunately, I fail…a lot.  This is a story of one of my failures.

Recently I decided that I was going to dehydrate some tomatoes.  Last year, I purchased an inexpensive food dehydrator to help me accomplish this task.  It sat in its box in the basement all year.  Well, this was going to end.  I was determined that it was no longer going to idle on the shelf.  Thus, I picked some tomatoes and read the instruction booklet that came with the dehydrator, as well as a guidebook I had purchased.  Tomatoes seemed easy enough.  I had some yellow, orange, and red cherry tomatoes.  Cherry tomatoes seemed fairly easy to dry as they could be placed directly on the tray without any further preparation.  Otherwise, the larger tomatoes required a short bath in boiling water to help peel off their skins.  After removing their skins and slicing them up, I figured I was set.  I plopped all my tomatoes on the trays and was ready to go.

Now, I noticed right away that the dehydrator was not top quality.  The Ronco device lacked a fan and had no temperature setting.  The top tray hardly received any heat at all.  Nevertheless, I figured that if I changed the trays and moved the produce around, eventually everything would dry.  In all, there was only three trays of tomatoes, so surely they would dry out.  This was wishful thinking.

After three days of drying, some of the tomatoes were dry, but about half of them were still moist and covered with white mold.  It was disgusting.  I took a few hopeful pictures at the beginning of my dehydration, but did not take any pictures of the failure.  The failed tomatoes looked a little like this:


Because the tomatoes were so awful looking…and I feared that the dried tomatoes might also be covered in mold spores, I tossed everything out.   It was an epic failure that took three long days of waiting.  Like Lenin, this leaves me wondering, “What is to be done?”

I will wash off the device and try less moist plants in the future.  For instance, I have some herbs that I could dry.  Perhaps because these are thinner and drier than tomatoes, they will not turn into a moldering pile of disgustingness.  Thus, one of the lessons that I learned is that the Ronco dehydrator may not be up to the task of tomatoes.  If the herbs work out, perhaps I could try my luck with some leafy greens.

Another lesson that I learned is that I should not have bought a dehydrator to begin with.  I know that the broiler in the oven could have also been used.  I just figured that the smaller device might use less energy and work more efficiently.  Perhaps this is true of higher quality of dehydrators.  However, the Ronco model seemed like the “Easy Bake Oven” version of a dehydrator.  Maybe it is a device that kids can use to pretend that they are dehydrating.  Another option is dehydrating things in the sun.  However, our yard is very shady so I wasn’t sure if I could reliably use the sun to dry.  In any event, I should have explored this free options before buying a device that sat in my basement for a year…and then molded my tomatoes.

I will try again.  Maybe I will have success with herbs.  If not…I think there will be one more Ronco Dehydrator at the Goodwill.

If first you don’t succeed, dry and dry again.


A Poem about Toads


The toad always frowns,

With its head to the ground

And glossy brown eyes

That look a little dead.

It can barely hop.

And can barely hope.

So, it shoves it long face with worms and dirt.

It is a creature of the earth.

Its eyes never look up to the stars

Or ahead to the distant horizon

Beyond to the dazzle of the city

It sees only mud

Or walls of reeds

And only speaks in sighs of resignation.

The toad’s world is danger, tragedy, and torment.

Love is a long rejection.

Life, a tall hurdle between sleep and death.

Frogs long to be princes.

Toads just long for kisses.

Thoughts about Death


Life is a thousand deaths.

Deaths of pets and loved ones.

The death of friends.

Then, there are frivolous deaths.

The death of a perky butt.

The death of brown hair.

The death of size three (this died a long time ago.)

The death of a young face,

The death of goals.

The death in the belief that anything is possible.

Deaths of ideas.

Deaths that hit you like a semi truck and change you forever.

We must go through 10,000 deaths before our real death.

Death of being single

Death of being in relationships

Death of running…biking…sex…driving…hearing…seeing….thinking.

Don’t forget the deaths of things that never were.

The death of dreams.

The team you never made.

The love that was unrequited.

The people you never met.

The party you were never invited to.

The choices we never made.

All the opportunities we had, or didn’t have,

Or didn’t even know we wanted.

All of this makes me profoundly sad.

We must be battle hardened against the grief of constant loss.

There are new things…

children  (for some people)

Careers (for some people)

Trips (for me)

New haircuts

New tattoos

New cars or homes

…interludes and distractions on the way to the grave.

More dying things to populate our lives for a while.

Then, the grave.

Beyond the grave there is death.

There is the death of your memory and your name

As you are forgotten by time and buried deeper by more deaths.

It sounds depressing.  But, these are the thoughts that haunt me each day.

The cure seems to be to pursue life with zeal.

But, chasing life is as childish as a kid who runs after the moon, thinking one day

They will catch it.

The moon is always just one step ahead in the sky.

In the end, it is exhausting…and you end up as empty handed as when the chase began.

Maybe religion is balm for the pain of living in death.

I used to tell religious people that I don’t want to live forever.

I could bravely face the world without the comfort of eternal life.

I can…and I do…but not bravely.

I am not too smart, cool, or stubborn for religion.

But, it will simply never ring true to me.

It will always seem like stories.

It will always be a pretty idea to blot out the horror of our

Existential crisis.

There are other things.  Some people have children-to pass on their name,

Values, and memories.

I can believe in children more than Bibles.

But, children devour life.

They devour identity.

Parents must sacrifice themselves on the altar of a new generation.

They become soccer moms.

Or, they become impoverished.

Marriages, time, hobbies, interests, a good night of sleep…

All of these are taken greedily by children

Who eat up the sacrifices with endless hunger and energy.

They are little destroyers…little Quetzalcoatls and Shivas

New generations eat the blood, sweat, and tears of the old.

Some children return the favor

They honor the memory, beliefs, and traditions of their parents.

But, others run away and exert their existence in wild and unpredictable ways.

I should know.  I am one of the feral and thankless ones.

I have seen friends grow up and move on.

I see the world move around me.

Each revolution around the sun brings more age, more loss, more changes…

And more sadness to be buried under the hobbies, work, activism, travel, fitness, friends, and other things that make the relentless march of things that fill up the void.

I wish I could extol the virtues of aging-but really, I think we are dancing.

We are dancing in a frenzy-like in the Rite of Spring.

We are dancing to forget.

We are dancing by shopping, drinking, watching TV, eating, running, vacationing, breeding, working…

Sometimes we dance together.

Sometimes alone.

Whatever it takes to make us forget that we are dancing to our deaths.

My Short Stint as a Radical Cheerleader


Back in 2010, I started up a radical cheerleading group called the Rah Rah Revolutionaries.   You might ask, what is radical cheerleading?  Well, it is a form of performance based activism that began in the mid-1990s by three sisters in Florida (Aimee, Coleen, and Cara Jennings). Generally speaking, it has an anarchist, anti-capitalist, feminist history.  I am not an anarchist, but I enjoy the idea of appropriating cheerleading and twisting it into something subversive.  By the time that I started the group, radical cheerleading was in decline nationally.  This isn’t surprising, as social movements in general were in decline after the Bush years.  Nevertheless, 2010/2011 saw a resurgence of protest and I am glad that the cheerleaders were a tiny part of that.

When I started the group, I had a lot of energy for activism.  I had just returned from a semester abroad in South Korea and I was looking to re-engage in my community.  The trip was a bit of a political isolation chamber.  Weird ideas fester in isolation.  I wanted to start up a radical clowning group at the same time.  For better or worse, that idea never took off.  Anyway, the idea of radical cheerleading had appealed to me for some time, though I am not sure how I first became familiar with the idea.  It seemed like a way to add something fun and interesting to the run of the mill protests that I had been attending.  Admittedly, my main motivation was probably the fact that I had been a cheerleader in high school.  Granted, I was the worst cheerleader in the history of cheerleading.  I was so awful that I actually got hate mail asking me to quit the squad.  This makes for a funny story, especially because the sender did not add a stamp to the letter.  I had to pay postage for my own hatemail.  I feel that paying postage for your hate mail pretty much means you fail at life.  None of this traumatized me enough to squash my fantasy of being an adult communist cheerleader.  To this end, I made some handmade fliers and put them up around Duluth.  I assembled some cheering clothes and recruited a few interested friends.  Thus, this is how the Rah Rah Revolutionaries was born.

The group really came into fruition when we tabled at the Duluth/Superior Pride Festival that year.  This helped us establish an email list.  This is also where we did our first action as the Rah Rah Revolutionaries, which involved cheering and chanting at a group of religious activists who were there to protest the Pride Festival.  In all, I have good memories of tabling at this event as many young people and members of the LGBT community showed interest in our group.


Following the event at Pride, we had a few meetings at my house.  We never practiced any chants or routines, but we planned some events we could attend.  Our events that fall included a fundraiser for CASDA  (a local domestic violence shelter) and an anti-war rally.  We were able to lead the anti-war march and lead the protesters in chants.  We were also involved in a few “Cheer for Choice” events.  In these events, we counter protested the 40 Days for Life picket outside of the Building for Women.  We did this several times during their 40 day vigil.  Because of my affinity for costumes and red and black clothes, I provided most of the uniforms/clothes to my friends.  After these fall events, the group went on hiatus during the winter.  It re-emerged in February 2011 with a few protests against Scott Walker’s attack against collective bargaining for public workers in Wisconsin.  We also did a few “Cheer for Choice” events that spring in front of Planned Parenthood as a way to counter protest .  In all, only about a half dozen people were actively involved in the group, with a dozen participants altogether. rah6

Unfortunately, I graduated in the spring of 2011 and moved to Mankato in fall 2011 for graduate school.  The group did not continue after I moved away.  Years passed, and while I looked back at the brief stint at a cheerleader with fondness, I figured that it was something that would forever remain a brief moment in the past.  However, after attending the Pride Festival this year, I once again became nostalgic for my pompons and cheerleader outfit.  As I saw young politicized youth wandering around the festival, I thought that they might enjoy radical cheerleading.  Perhaps it would be a way to make protesting fun and accessible.  At the very least, it could add some color and noise to local protests and pickets.  Around the country, there are not many active radical cheerleading groups these days.  I myself am pretty busy with other things.  But, the magnetism of nostalgia and possibility pulls me back to that past moment.  So, I am preparing for round two of the cheerleading squad.  Hopefully we can cheer on the masses to, “Rise up!  Rise up! Rise Up up up up!”




Jay Cooke, Labor Day, and Crazy Train Capitalism


Jay Cooke, Labor Day, and Crazy Train Capitalism

H. Bradford

    Going to Jay Cooke State Park was a Memorial Day and Labor Day tradition in my family.  It was one of my grandmother’s favorite spots, as she grew up in the Cloquet area.  Growing up, I never considered who Jay Cooke was or what Labor Day meant.  Labor Day simply marked the end of summer and the beginning of the school year.  It was observed with a picnic and a walk in the park.  In researching the history of Labor Day and Jay Cooke, this park is certainly a symbolic place to observe this holiday.  Jay Cooke was a capitalist whose bank sent the global economy on a crazy train of capitalistic instability.  In part, Labor Day exists because the economy went off the rails in 1873.

To give a brief overview of Jay Cooke, he was born in Sandusky Ohio in 1821.  His father was a railroad investor, real estate speculator, and lawyer (“Jay Cooke, Banker and Railroad Financier,” 2012).   It is safe to say that he came from a well-established family, who had lived in the U.S. since 1638 with the arrival of Henry Cooke to Salem, Massachusetts.  In addition to his career in investment and law, Jay Cooke’s father, Eleutheros Cooke,  was elected to congress in 1830 and President William Harrison stayed at their home.  Due to his family’s connections and social position, Jay Cooke enjoyed several well paying jobs before the age of 18 (Lubetkin, 2014).  The most significant of these early jobs was in 1839, when Jay Cooke was hired by EW Clark and Company.  EW Clark and Company served as a bank and loan broker for railroad companies.  He was made a partner in the company after four years, though the company ended in bankruptcy in 1857 during the Panic of 1857 (“Jay Cooke, Banker and Railroad Financier,” 2012).  It is notable that Jay Cooke’s first job with a dry goods company also ended in the face of economic downturn during the Panic of 1837 (Lubetkin, 2014).  These incidents offer a clue about the nature capitalism during that time period.  During the 1800s, there was a transformation of capitalism.  Capitalism becomes increasingly financialized, that is, rather than relying on the sale of physical goods in the material world, it entered the realm of investment, debt, and “fictitious capital.”  At the same time, capitalism became more international, seeking out new markets and sources for raw materials.  Lenin called this dual process of the maturation of capitalism: imperialism.  The Panic of 1837 and the Panic of 1857 were only two of the 16 boom-bust cycles between 1854-1919 (Berberoglu, 2012).   Economically, the mid to late 1800s were a tumultuous time.  This could be understood as part of the growing pains of capitalism, the pains that drove capitalism towards internationalism and the financial sector.  These growing pains were not mitigated by modern methods of trying to stabilize capitalism, such as the Federal Reserve (established after the Panic of 1907) or the government spending policies of Keynesian economics.

After the collapse of EW Clark and Company, Jay Cooke set up his own company, Jay Cooke and Company in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War.  It is during this time period that he made a name for himself by selling bonds during the Civil War.  More than any banker of the time, he became known as the financier of the Civil War for raising $3 billion in bonds supporting of the Union war efforts (“Jay Cooke, Banker and Railroad Financier” 2012).  However, he was no stranger to the business of war bonds, as prior to the Civil War, Jay Cooke’s Clark company was one of two companies awarded a  $50 million bid to raise money in support of the Mexican-American War of 1846 (Lubetkin, 2014).

To provide some historical context, the Civil War, like all wars, was expensive.  At the beginning of the war, the Union’s Treasury only had $1.7 million in reserve for war that cost about $1 million a day.  To raise money to fund the war, the North could have raised taxes or printed more money, but neither was sufficient for raising funds.  Thus, bonds were used to fund the war.  Jay Cooke, on his own volition, spearheaded the effort to raise bond money.  He was actually against slavery and initially invested his own money into bonds to demonstrate his belief that bonds were a sound investment.  He also targeted farmers, artisans, and merchants for bond sales, rather than only the wealthy.  His template for selling war bonds was used again during World War I and II.  Because of his success and enthusiasm regarding bond sales, on March 7th, 1862, he was appointed as Subscription Agent for National Loans, which put him in charge of the sales of all US bonds.  In 1863, he sold $511 million in bonds, oversaw 2,500 bond sellers, and sold about $3 million in bonds a day.  Interestingly, in 1864, the war costed about $3 million a day.  In all, Cooke is credited with raising a quarter of the Union’s $6.2 billion in war expenses.  Of course, he certainly profited from this venture.  His company netted $220,000 or about a 1/25 % of 1% the revenues.  At the end of the war, he was worth about $7-10 million dollars and rewarded himself by constructing of one of the nicer mansions of the era, complete with fifty three rooms.  It should also be noted, that while he was against slavery, he certainly wasn’t against racism.  During the war, Jay Cooke invested in a trolley car service between Capitol Hill and Georgetown.  However, he did not allow African Americans to ride the trolleys, even if they were serving in Union regiments.  When confronted about the policy, he avoided the issue by selling the company.  Another example of his less than moral behavior was that he also sold bonds to Quackers, telling them that the bonds would build hospitals, when in fact they money was not specifically earmarked (Lubetkin, 2014).

After the war, Jay Cooke turned his attention to railroad investment though he was a latecomer to this investment arena as there was already a transcontinental railroad when he agreed to help finance the Northern Pacific Railroad (“Bubbles, Panics, and Crashes” 2012 ).  Between 1865 and 1866, Cooke began purchasing large tracts of land in Minnesota and visited Superior and Duluth.  In 1868, he sold $4.5 million dollars in bonds to fund the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad.  (Lubetkin, 2014)  Later, Gregory Smith, the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company approached Jay Cooke and Co. for a $5 million loan.  Construction began at NP Junction in Carlton (“Brainerd Owes its Existence,” 1971).  His investment in that railroad is why we are here today in Jay Cooke State Park.  The Munger Trail was once a section of Northern Pacific Railroad that connected Duluth to Minneapolis.  To put his investment into a larger economic context, 1865-1873 was a booming time for the US economy (Barga, 2013).  Arguably, despite some downturns, this was part of a larger unprecedented economic boom between 1848 to 1873.  Once again, capitalism was becoming more international.  World trade actually increased 250% between 1850 and 1870.  This is even more astonishing when one considers that world trade had already increased 100% between 1800 and 1840 (Faulkner, 2012).  Owing to the industrialization of the U.S., Britain, and Western Europe, one area of rapid growth was railroads.  Between 1865 and 1875, $7.25 million dollars was invested in railroads in the United States.  During this time period, 30,000 miles of new track was laid, doubling the miles of railroad in the country (Barga, 2013). Of course, like funding the Civil War, constructing these railroads was tremendously expensive.  Prior to the Civil War, roads had been funded by local investors.  However, due to the scope of creating a transcontinental railroad system, the Federal Government once again sought bonds from banking houses to fund the railroads.  Thus, many of the bankers who had negotiated Civil War bonds, became involved in financing railroads (White, 2003).

To fund the massive expansion of railroads, the railroad companies went into bonded debt.  Railroad debt accounted for $416 million in 1867, $2.23 billion in 1874, and $5.05 billion in 1890 (White, 2003).  The hope was that the construction of railroads would eventually lead to profits through shipment of goods, extraction of new resources, and construction of new communities.  In this region in particular, it would enable the transport of goods to be shipped over the Great Lakes.  However, construction was costly, as railroads has to be built through swamps, mountains, and Native American land.   In short, it was a risky investment.  Despite this, there was a “railroad mania” as investors purchased railroad bonds and securities.  This frenzy to invest spread into Europe, as about ⅓ of railroad securities and bonds were from England. The profits from new railroads did not match the expansion (Barga, 2013).  There was also significant investment from included significant from Great Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands (White, 2003).  As an interesting side note, Germany’s investment in railroads was fueled by indemnity payments from the Franco-Prussian War, a war which preceded the Paris Commune (“Bubbles, Panics, and Crashes” 2012).  Despite the risky investment, financiers and railroad companies carefully crafted a rosy narrative of profitability.  Jay Cooke’s banking banking house emerged from the Civil War with a trustworthy, moral, and a patriotic veneer, lending legitimacy to the bonds.  However, even this had limits, as in 1872, Cooke advised his brother to try to control the Associated Press from releasing unfavorable information about the Northern Pacific Railroad, as not to scare off investors.  As the railroad expenditures outgrew the investment, Jay Cooke advanced his bank’s money into the Northern Pacific.  But, this rendered bankers unable to withdraw funds from his banking house (White, 2003).

The railroad bubble burst in September of 1873.  Fear of overcapacity, high costs, and the Credit Mobilier scandal (wherein politicians were bribed with discounted railroad stock), made investors lose faith in railroads and depress the bond prices.  As a result, Jay Cooke’s bank closed its doors in September.  This resulted in a panic, run on banks, the stock market collapse, and a worldwide depression that lasted into the 1890s.  This economic downturn is known as the Long Depression (White, 2003).  Jay Cooke’s bank collapse resulted in the collapse of 98 banks, 89 railroad companies, 18,000 other businesses (Faulkner, 2012). By 1875, 65% of the American railroad bonds held by European investors had defaulted (White, 2003).  Nevertheless, The Long Depression was by no means as intense as the Great Depression.  In the US, the economic growth rate only declined from 6.2% to 4.7%.  Jay Cooke himself died a wealthy man due to his investments in Utah silver mines (“Jay Cooke, Banker and Railroad Financier”) and the fact that he may have hidden two million dollars (Bellesiles, 2010).  Nevertheless, he did have to sell his mansion and moved in with his daughter, where he lived until his death 31 years later (Bellesiles, 2010).  It is hard to sympathize with Jay Cooke’s plight as the impact of the Long Depression was far worse for millions of workers.  To quote an account from the the Brainerd Dispatch (1971):

“I was employed in the capacity of yard clerk in the lumber yard under the late J. C. Barber. One day in September, 1873, he brought me a copy of a telegram announcing the failure of Jay Cooke.  The significance did not impress me until a few days later, when I was discharged, along with two-thirds of the entire shop force. Then came several years of the hardest times Brainerd has ever seen; the population dwindled to less than half of what it was in 1872…..”

This worker’s experience was not unique, as one in seven Americans was out of work in 1876 (Faulkner, 2012).  Railroad construction halted, as railroads could not fund their projects or pay their workers.  Railroad workers were the first to be hit by the crisis and many became homeless as their housing was connected to their job.  Union membership declined during the Long Depression as there were fewer workers to join unions.  Prices rose on everyday goods, adding to the struggles of everyday life.  Previous gains of the labor movement were reversed.  During this time period, unemployment and child labor increased (Barga, 2013).

In Marxist terms, this kind of event in capitalism results from the crisis of overproduction.

“In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. (Marx, 1848)”

In other words, there arises times in capitalism where there is too much production. The main reason why this results in a crisis is that profits decline over time as new technologies are capable of reducing production costs.  For instance, the first railroad in England, which connected Liverpool and Manchester, allowed rail travel at speeds little faster than a bicycle.  But, the railway was highly profitable, offering 9.5% annual dividends, a profitability that would never again be matched by a British railroad (Wolmar, 2007).  Technology quickly improved, resulting in faster trains and more capacity to move goods.  Technological innovation increases production, but also diminishes profits as more money must be invested in new technologies.  Because profits come from wages, there is pressure to decrease wages as profits decline.  This strategy has a long term impact of reducing the spending power of laborers.  Thus, this results in less consumption of goods, or a problem of too much production compared to consumption.  This kind of crisis results in the collapse of companies.  With fewer companies, there is more competition, which also results in less profit margin.  To increase profits, capitalists increase exploitation.  This is exactly what happened in the Long Depression as the few remaining railroad workers experienced a deterioration in wages and conditions.  In the bigger picture, as a result of the Long Depression, capitalism changed, becoming more closely connected to the state and more monopolistic.  During this period, countries also became more protectionist.  For instance, the U.S. had tariff rates of 30%.  Countries also became more colonial and invested more in arms expenditures.  Arguably, this increase in military spending set the stage for WWI (Faulkner, 2012).  Another outcome of the Long Depression was that it enabled the U.S. to emerge as a greater economic power as Britain faltered  (Sassoon, 2013).

Besides having an impact on global capitalism, the Long Depression had an impact on the labor movement.   For example, in 1877 wages were cut across various railroad companies.  In May of that year, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company cut wages 10%.  Wages were cut an additional 10% that June.  Pennsylvania Railroad Company also decided to double the length of eastbound trains without increasing the number of crew.  At the same time, The Baltimore and Ohio line reduced the workweek from three to two days and cut the wages of workers making over a dollar by 10%.  Each of these are examples of capitalists trying to extract more relative surplus value from the labor of the workers.  Relative surplus value is the profit gained from reducing wages or increasing the productivity of workers.  Because of these cuts, the workers went on strike.  The Great Railroad Strike was the first general strike in US history and first major railroad strike.  100,000 workers participated by walking off their jobs, destroying property, and halted business (Barga, 2013).  To break the strike, 60,000 militia members were mobilized throughout various states.  In Pittsburg, the local militia actually sided with the strikers so the National Guard was called upon to quell the strike.  Troops fired on a crowd, killing three children and in all, 100 people died in the strike.

The Long Depression also accounts for why, in the 1880s, George Pullman decided to reduce wages and lay off workers for the Pullman Palace Car Company.  Demand for railroad cars had simply evaporated (Delaney, 2014).  Beyond the reduced wages and layoffs, workers of the The Pullman Palace Car Company, a company which made sleeping cars, were required to live in Pullman City.  Clergy in the city had to pay rent to use the church and workers had to pay to use the library.  Wages fell 25% during the depression, but rents did not decrease.  Furthermore, workers who accumulated debt had it taken out from their paycheck.  Because of these conditions, 3,000 Pullman workers went on wildcat strike in May 11, 1894.  The strike was made national when, Eugene Debs, the founder of the American Railroad Union, spearheaded a boycott any Pullman cars, with the exception of mail cars.  In all, 50,000 railroad workers walked off of their jobs and there was no movement of rails west of Chicago (Brendel, 1994).  In July 1894, President Grover Cleveland sent 12,000 federal troops to crush the strike (Delaney, 2014).  During the confrontation in Chicago, the U.S. Army and Marshalls killed 30 striking workers (Warren, 2014).  The strike was declared over on August 3rd 1894.  In the end, Eugene Debs went to prison, the American Railroad Union was disbanded, and Pullman employees were made to pledge not to unionize again (Delaney, 2014).  Once the strike was ended, Cleveland signed legislation in support of the creation of Labor Day (Warren, 2014), but he did not win re-election that year (Warren, 2014).

While the Pullman Strike played a pivotal role in Cleveland’s support of Labor Day, the holiday had been in the works for many years.  During the French Revolution, a special day was set aside in September to honor labor.  The first Labor Day was celebrated in Australia in 1956 and there were early Labor Days in Boston in 1878 and Toronto in 1872 (Ruyle, 2014).  During the 1880s as the economy began to recover from the initial shocks of the Long Depression, workers began once again to join unions and agitate.  In 1882, the Central Labour Union was formed in New York.  The CLU proposed a “monster labor festival” and developed plans for a parade and picnic on Sept 5th, 1882 (Freedman).  This idea was actually proposed by Maguire and Mcguire, two members of the Socialist Labor Party in New York (Ruyle, 2014).  10,000 men and women participated in a parade that was it was watched by over a quarter million people.  The marchers in the parade carried placards with slogans such as “Less Work, More Pay,” “Labor Built this Republic, Labor Shall Rule It” and “To the Workers Should Belong All Wealth.”  Two years later, the AFL called all workers to celebrate Labor Day on the first monday in September.  In 1886, 35,000 people participated in a Labor Day march in Chicago.  In 1887 Oregon made it a state holiday.  And, of course, after the Pullman strike, Grover Cleveland made it a federal holiday in 1894 as a consolation workers.  However, by this time, the radical slogans of the original Labor Day celebrations had become more subdued.  Because of increased state repression in the wake of Haymarket massacre in 1886, the AFL distanced itself from red flags, radical speakers, and internationalism at Labor Day.  Labor Day was promoted as less radical alternative to May Day, which granted it state sponsorship (Freedman, n.d.).  Because of this state sponsorship, Labor Day has generally been seen as more respectable and American.  It has even been denounced as a capitalist handout by the Socialist Labor Party, despite the fact that they were part of the founding of the holiday! (Ruyle, 2014). During the 1930s it became centered on organized labor again, though over the years with the decline of the labor movement, its celebration has waned (Freedman, n.d.).

This leads me back to the beginning.  At one time, I was a little girl having a picnic with my family at Jay Cooke State Park.  I didn’t even know who Jay Cooke was or what Labor Day meant.  This is probably representative of how most people in the U.S. spend Labor Day.  It is a holiday to celebrate the end of summer.  The holiday is divorced from its history.  This is because many of us are divorced from the labor movement.  That is, most of us are not union members or know about labor history.  Most of us don’t even consider ourselves working class.  We are part of the mushy, meaningless, amorphous “middle class,” a term that obscures our place in the economy.  We are surrounded by all kinds of histories and connections, but live in an isolated moment and in alienated relationships.  If we saw the history and connections, we might see ourselves and this moment as part of something bigger and something potentially more powerful than capitalism.  In this moment, I am writing a presentation which I will give at Jay Cooke State Park on Labor Day.  Jay Cooke was capitalist who played a major role in unleashing the Long Depression on the global economy.  The economic downturn impacted workers, especially railroad workers, who went on some major strikes during this period.  Labor Day came out of this era of struggle.  While it is often viewed as the less radical sibling of May Day, both holidays came out of the struggle of workers for better lives and a better world.  As such, Labor Day does not have to be consigned to family picnics in the park.  It can be reclaimed and revitalized.  Once I was a child, innocent and ignorant.  I grew into a radical and continue to grow as I engage in social movements.  With the help of social movements, places and holidays can grow and change too.


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