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An Overview of Overland Travel

An Overview of Overland Travel

H. Bradford

This past summer I went on an overland trip through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe through Nomad Overland Adventure Tours.  I chose Nomad because they included The Great Zimbabwe complex on their itinerary, they were reasonably priced compared to other companies, they had good reviews, and their website looked appealing.  The tour that I chose was “Four Country Trek” which involved 25 Days of camping…in southern Africa.  I had never actually gone camping in my life!  So, this is the review of a novice camper.  Because it was my first time camping, I did have some misgivings.  I feared that I was not be up for the adventure.  My brother tried to talk me out of it, or at least talk some sense into me.  However, there are plenty of people who go to Africa on overland camping trips.  I am sure I am not the weakest or least adventurous of this lot.  Am I?  Well, maybe I am.  Who knows. dscf3967

The Flight:  I flew from Duluth, Mn to Cape Town, South Africa.  This in itself was an adventure, since it involved a flight to Amsterdam followed by a flight to Cape Town.  This resulted in over 20 hours of flying time.  It was pretty amazing to fly over ALL of Africa.  I arrived in Cape Town at 11 pm and was glad that I purchased a transfer to my hotel, or for that matter, a hotel.  While I try to be a frugal person when I travel, I have found that it is nice to stay in a hotel when I first arrive somewhere, rather than a hostel.  This allows my body and mind time to adjust to my new environment rather than being immediately thrust into the discomfort of hostels.  I was happy to have a hotel for my first two nights.

Cape Town: I spent the next day exploring Cape Town, which was the most beautiful city that I have ever seen.  It is hemmed by cloudy mountains, strange forests, and the meeting point of two oceans.  My solo adventures in the city involved visiting Robben Island, going on a Hop on-Hop off Bus Tour, a visit to the top of the table mountain, and wandering around the waterfront.  It also involved a 45 minute frantic jog back to my hotel through darkened streets after a man grabbed me by the arm.  That is another story for another blog post.  I will only say that Cape Town was wonderful.  I particularly enjoyed seeing a hyrax (a rodent like mountain animal which is related to the elephant) and a variety of unique plants (the Cape is one of several plant regions, which families of plants found nowhere in the world).   Oh, our tour guide at Robben Island was once a prisoner on the island and was once part of the Black Consciousness movement. dscn0186 dscn0110

Registration and the Truck:

The next morning, I went to Nomad’s office to sign in for the trip.  This is where I first met the people who would be traveling with me, the guides, and the truck.  Our overland truck was named Ottis.  Ottis could fit 24 passengers.  We were each allowed a soft duffel bag or soft backpack with a daypack and assigned our own locker on Ottis.  Ottis contained all of our tents, cooking equipment, a freezer, electrical outlets, food supplies, a water tank, and basically everything we would need for our camping journey through southern Africa.  Ottis was a sturdy truck with the capacity to take on the worst bumpy and dirt roads on our trek.


The People:

There were about 24 people on our trip, so Ottis was packed!  We were squeezed onto the truck pretty tightly.  The passengers came from all over the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Germany, Belgium, Canada, France, United States, Netherlands, Denmark, South Korea, Switzerland, and Japan!  I was one of three Americans on the trip.  As a whole, it seemed that Netherlands and Dutch speaking Belgians made up the majority of those on the trip.  This is perhaps owing to the fact that South Africa was originally settled by the Dutch and Afrikaans is closely related to Dutch.  Just as there was a wide spread of nationalities, there was a wide range of ages.  Most of the people on the trip were in their 20s, but there were a few people in their 30s, as well as some adults who were in their 50s and 60s.  It can generally be said that everyone was well traveled and had a spirit of adventure.  It can also be said that everyone was at least somewhat athletic, with several individuals who had trekked up mountains or hiked extensively.  Many of the travelers enjoyed pursuits such as scuba diving, mountain climbing, skiing, biking, hiking, skydiving, etc.  Compared to the others, I was definitely on the lower end of fitness and propensity for adventure.

The Guides: Both of our guides were from Zimbabwe, which was great since I was most excited for my time in Zimbabwe.  The driver, Dingi, was a little older and generally had a good sense of humor.  Dingi was patient and never lost his cool as we faced long, arduous days on dusty roads.  Prince was younger and had spent some time working and living in the United States.  Prince did more of the cooking than Dingi and was a fabulous cook!  We all helped to prepare meals by washing and chopping vegetables, cleaning dishes, or otherwise helping as needed.  Prince worked his magic over the rudimentary burners and campfire to create flavorful southern Africa meals.  Both of them worked from before 5am to after 10 pm each night.  They did not get breaks between tours, so they worked non-stop from early spring to December.   They both tried to have a good attitude about it, as even the hyper-exploitative conditions paid better than jobs that they might find or not find in Zimbabwe.  Their low wage is bolstered by the tips they receive at the end of the trip.  So, as a note to fellow travelers: be sure to budget tip money.

The Camping:

My introduction to camping was my first night in the Cederberg region of South Africa.  We stayed at a campsite that was adjacent to a farm/vineyard.  A burly Boer regaled us with tales of leopards that pass through the farm.  I went to bed feeling giddy with my new adventure.  However, that night it rained very hard and became chilly.  My tent got wet inside.  I got wet.  I was miserable as I had to take apart my tent in the rain, pack it up, becoming covered in mud.  This was not the best introduction to camping.  This was one of the worst nights.  I will note that camping was much colder than I had prepared for.  I thought that it would be warmer…after all, it was Africa.  I come from Minnesota, where winter can involve 110 inches of snow and weeks of below zero temperatures.  I could not believe that winter in Africa could possibly be cold.  I was wrong.  There were nights that were near freezing, especially in desert areas.  I did not prepare myself well enough.  My sleeping bag was not up to the task.  So, there were some miserable, shivering nights.  However, there was also a sense of accomplishment and adventure.  Each day we had to get up early and take apart the tents.  Each day we had to put them back up.  It ended up being more work than it sounds like.  Also, because it was winter, the sun set early.  We were always putting up and taking down tents in the darkness of winter.  We chopped vegetables and did dishes in the dark, coldness of desert night.  It was fun, challenging, and beautiful all at once.  I never felt demoralized, but I also counted the days to my next warm shower and bed.  Thankfully, our longest stretch of camping was about five days.  Then, we had a reprieve in a city, where we stayed in a hotel.  This would be followed by another stretch of camping, with the eventual reward of a stay in a city.


Showers and Bathrooms: The shower and bathroom situation was better than expected.  To be fair, I expected that I would probably be digging a hole and burying my pooh.  I also expected no showers or only cold showers.  In actuality, the bathroom situation was pretty good in South Africa and Namibia, which public restrooms at gas stations (which could be accessed for a fee).  The camp grounds featured flush toilets.  Showers tended to be either extremely cold or burning hot, with no way to moderate the heat.  This made showering a challenge, but since I was always extremely dirty it was worth the challenge.  Showers often did not have any lights, which meant showering with a flashlight or headlamp.  We did “bush camp” in Namibia for one night, which meant there were no showers and only an outhouse.  Really, I don’t mind outhouses.  In Botswana, the toilet situation took a turn for the worst.  The gas stations no longer had public toilets or running water.  I remember at one point, I had to use the toilet, but there was no toilet.  So, I had to trek away from Ottis, our bus, to find a secluded area to do my business.  However, ALL of the trees were variations of acacias.  Each tree was covered in terrible sharp spikes!   I squatted by this not very concealing, thorn covered tree…which jabbed by butt with a nasty thorn.  I pulled up my pants in disgust!  I was so angry that I couldn’t even answer nature’s call.  I felt angry at nature…angry at these mean trees that were neither concealing nor kind.  There was also a public restroom in Zimbabwe which was basically a tennis ball sized hole in a cement floor.  Despite some minor challenges along the way, I had access to flush toilets for most of the trip and a temperature controlled shower at least once a week. dscf3896

The Food:

The food was far better than I expected.  Each day that we camped, we started the day with a modest breakfast.  The breakfast consisted of cereal, tea, instant coffee, toast made over the campfire, fruit, and granola.  Sometimes the guides would make us bacon or eggs, but I never had these since I don’t eat meat and I prefer a light breakfast.  Each morning, I basically ate toast, fruit, and tea.  Our lunch was usually taken very quickly at a rest stop.  So, this usually consisted of cold sandwiches.  I ate a lot of cucumber, cheese, and tomato sandwiches on the road.  Since we made bathroom stops every few hours, there were opportunities to buy snacks and drinks.  Dinner was more of a production.  Once the tents were set up, we helped prepare dinner by cutting vegetables, setting the table, washing, or whatever else was needed.  Prince tried to make traditional foods, but also catered to my vegetarian diet.  I was the only vegetarian and didn’t ask for any special treatment.  Despite my protests, he always made me something special.  Our evening meals consisted of cooked squash, sweet potatoes, mealie pap, chakalaka stew, game meats, fish, pasta, curry vegetables, etc.  The food always tasted fresh and delicious.  There were always plenty of vegetable dishes and I never felt hungry.  Also, I usually get sick when I travel.  However, I did not become ill the whole time!  So, my digestive system handled the food very well. dscf3691




Before I went on the trip, I visited a travel health clinic.  Actually, it was my first time doing this, as usually I have not been too worried about my health while traveling.  I was given a variety of vaccinations, including yellow fever, meningitis, Hepatitis A/B, and typhoid.  I was also given malarial pills and anti-diarrhea pills.  I was told to take the malarial pills before beginning the trip.  Really, I was the only person on Ottis who was taking malaria pills (until Botswana).  Oh well, at least I gave my body a long time to get used to the malaria pills. I had no symptoms from the malarial pills other than vivid dreams.  I took them at night with my dinner, rather than at breakfast, since I did notice they gave me a little diarrhea and it was easier to deal with diarrhea at night rather than during the day while on a truck.  Otherwise, I had no major health issues during the trip.  Because it was winter during the trip, I really didn’t see any mosquitoes.  I had a few bites on my hands (since the spray was washed off), but mosquitoes were not very active.  Winter was also useful because snakes, scorpions, and insects in general were dormant during the trip.

The Days:

The days were usually long and involved a lot of driving.  There were places where the roads were extremely bumpy and dusty, resulting in hours of a slow slog through clouds of red dust.  At one point, the vibrations from the bumpy roads caused one of the windows to shatter into thousands of pieces.  We used a mattress to cover the window until it could be repaired.  I usually awoke before 5am, however I rose early to make sure I had enough time to shower and take down my tent.  I never wanted to make people wait for me.  Usually, we were sleeping by around 10 pm.  On days when we were not driving, we usually ended up in a vehicle …as we did wildlife drives to see animals!

The Excursions: Many of the activities were covered in the activity package I purchased.  However, many of the stops had the option for some optional excursions.  Many people did not partake in these optional excursions due to the price or the fact they wanted to relax after spending time on the road.  I went on several optional excursions, which I found to be fun, but not necessary.  For instance, I went canoeing on the Orange River.  I thought this was a good activity because I wanted some exercise after being cooped up in the truck.  While I Swakopmund, I went on a tour of the Cape Seal Colony via a boat ride.  This was also well worth the money, since when are you going to see hundreds of seals on a beach and in the water?  The land was dotted with the swarm of dark bodies.  I also went on a night wildlife drive at Etosha National Park.  Once again this wasn’t necessary, as we had a drive earlier in the day.  However, it offered me the opportunity to see nocturnal animals such as hyenas and an aardwolf.   This tour was freezing cold, as we were in an open jeep.  However, a group of hyenas brushed by our vehicle, a few feet away from us.  I also went on a helicopter ride over Victoria falls.  This was spendy, but worth it, because I had never been in a helicopter before and it offered the full view of Victoria falls.  Nevertheless,  a person could be perfectly satisfied without spending any money on extra excursions- as there was plenty to see and do without these excursions. dscn1225 Money: On a day to day basis, I didn’t spend much money.  I don’t drink alcohol, which was popular with other passengers.  I also tried to limit my snacks, as I didn’t want to gain weight (from the sedentary days on the truck).  Most days did not have optional excursions, as there were included activities such as walks, wildlife drives, or city tours.  My main expenses were water, soft drinks, and supplemental snacks.  This made me feel less guilty when I splurged on a helicopter ride.  I don’t like buying souvenirs, so I waited until the end to pick up a few small items.  In the end, I had money left over in my budget as I had not spent as much as I thought.


  1. Seeing rhinos and elephants acting aggressively towards each other at a watering hole.
  2. The Great Zimbabwe Ruins
  3. Climbing Dune 45
  4. Seeing the Cape Seal Colony
  5. Visiting Robben Island
  6. Taking the cable car up the Table Mountain
  7. Sitting a few feet away from lions eating a giraffe (in an open vehicle)
  8. Squatting in the grass a few feet away from a wild white rhino!
  9. Seeing 200 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and plants
  10. Sitting in a canoe- watching hippos in the Okavango Delta
  11. A helicopter ride over Victoria falls
  12. Star gazing in the Southern Hemisphere
  13. Visiting Cecil Rhodes grave
  14. Spotting a leopard!
  15. Spotting all of the Big Five: Lion, leopard, cape buffalo, rhino, elephant
  16. Seeing my first elephant, first lion…first zebra…first….etc.
  17. Scurrying across the border to myself
  18. Seeing both sides of Victoria Falls
  19. Meeting lion researchers in Okavango delta
  20. Surviving!



Overland camping involves long days in a crowded truck on bumpy roads.  In the winter, it was uncomfortably cold with late sunrises and sunsets.  I was covered in dirt and my skin became extremely dry.  However, it was still less challenging than I thought it would be.  It involved early mornings, effort, and cooperation.  Nevertheless, I think that anyone with a positive attitude, patience, and open mind could enjoy this kind of trip.  The reward for sleeping in a tent, is waking up to fresh, brisk mornings and nights under the expansive and exotic sky of the Southern hemisphere.  The group effort and shared discomforts builds camaraderie.  There is also something nice about sitting in a circle around a campfire with people from around the world.  They all have stories about where they have been and what they have done.  It is inspiring.  The days on the truck are also rewarded with sights of birds and animals that you would otherwise only see in the zoo.  There is something wonderful about seeing these animals in nature, behaving as they would naturally (eating one another, fighting, or showing indifference to each other).  Each day I saw or experienced something completely unique and fascinating.  It enlivened my curiosity and made me feel like a child.  With that said, I highly recommend overland camping!

Halloween Unmasked: A Socialist Feminist History of Halloween

Halloween Unmasked:

A Socialist Feminist History of Halloween

H. Bradford 9/22/16

    I love Halloween.  I love the color orange and the imagery of bats, pumpkins, black cats, spiders, and creepy things.  I love wearing costumes, carving pumpkins, going to corn mazes, the brilliant hues of fall, pumpkin spice everything, scarecrows, migrating birds, gray skies, and empty fields.  But, I also love socialism and feminism.  I love the empowerment of workers and the quest for social justice.  I love to think about how gender shapes and limits our lives.  Thus, this analysis is the marriage of two great loves: Halloween and social justice.  While Halloween is viewed as a liminal time between seasons and life and death, it is usually quite estranged from social justice considerations.  Like any good activist, I want to pierce the veil between the superficial fun of celebration and the hidden realities of oppression.  Behind the mask of every holiday is a hidden world of inequities.


Pagan Roots:

Halloween began as the ancient Celtic festival, Samhain.  It was the day when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was weakest.  It also marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter (Dvorack, 2010).  Samhain marked the beginning of a new year and was one of four major festivals observed by the Celts.  It’s celebration was marked with costumes, sacrifices of plants and animals, fortune telling, and bonfires to help the dead find their way and avoid humans (Santino, 1982).   It was a liminal time to be sure.  Samhain was appropriated by the Catholic Church as All Saints Day, then All Hallow’s Eve, and eventually Halloween (Dvorack, 2010).   This process began with Pope Gregory I, who in 601 AD, proclaimed an edict missionaries should try to incorporate the practices of pagans as they converted them (Santino, 1982).  As such, almost every Christian site in Ireland was once a pagan place of worship.  Ancestor worship continued through the veneration of saints (Grunke, 2008).  In 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV announced the holiday as All Martyrs Day, to commemorate Christian martyrs.  In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III expanded the holiday to include all saints, and it was thusly named All Saint’s Day (History of Halloween, 2009).  All Saint’s Day was a sanitized version of Samhain, as it was hard for the church to reconcile what seemed to be such a dark and evil holiday with Christian beliefs.  However, old practices and beliefs were slow to die.  Practitioners of the old beliefs were persecuted as witches (Santino, 1982).  In the 11th century, All Saint’s Day was changed to All Soul’s Day to commemorate the dead.   Interestingly, the celebrations continued to feature some aspects of the original Samhain celebrations.  It was observed with bonfires, costumes, and parades (History of halloween, 2009).  Children would go door to door asking for soul cakes in exchange for prayers on the behalf of dead loved ones.  Soul cakes, which were sweets with a cross over the top, represented a soul being released from purgatory (Fraser, 2015).

The assimilation of Halloween into Catholic holidays was part of the broader conversion of pagans to Christianity.  This conversion to Christianity impacted women in a variety of ways.  Even before the Christianization of Celtic people, there were attempts to assimilate them into Roman culture.  By 43 AD, most Celtic territories were under Roman control, under which they remained for four hundred years (History of halloween, 2009).  Under Roman occupation, there were some efforts to stamp out practices such as sacrifice  (Ellis, 1994).  While Roman occupation was generally hostile towards Celtic people, they did add some of their own culture to Samhain celebrations.  For instance, the Roman festival of Pomonia, which celebrated apples, may have added bobbing for apples to Samhain traditions.  The Romans also had a fall festival called Feralia, which commemorated the passing of the dead (History of halloween, 2009).  Whatever the influence of Roman culture on Samhain celebrations, the influence of Romans on gender relationships was less positive.  Roman officials also refused to work with female leaders and even attacked the kingdom belonging to Boudicca because they felt it was illegal for a woman to rule a kingdom.  According to legends, her land was pillaged and her daughters were raped (Ellis, 1994).


Despite Roman accounts of female rulers or priestesses, the exact role of women in Celtic society is unknown.  Because Celtic people did not have a written language, information about Celtic pagans comes from Roman accounts and archaeological finds.  In Roman accounts,  Celtic women were viewed as angry, strong, promiscuous, shared by men, and more equal to men than their Roman counterparts.  In Gaul, Celtic women shared in their husband’s wealth, with either inheriting it upon the death of the other.  However, women could be interrogated if their husband died and taken as hostages or given away in marriage to cement alliances.  Women were not noted to be in positions of political power in Gaul, though some of the richest Iron Age burials in central Europe were of women and there were two British Celtic queens in 1 AD, implying some power or status (Adamson, 2005).  Various stories cast women into strong roles, such as the tale of Scathach (Sac-hah), a warrior woman who trained Cuchulain.  There is also the tale of Queen Maeve of Connaught, who lead a cattle raid of the Kingdom of Ulster to obtain a bull that was equal to her husband’s best animal.  According to Roman accounts, women could serve as diplomats, judges, and intermediaries.  And, if his account can be believed, according to Cesar, some Celtic people were polyandrous and others polyamorous (The lives of celtic women, n.d).

While the specific gender roles of Celtic women is unknown, generally speaking, Celtic societies were diverse, united by a related language and religious beliefs, warrior centered, yet different in geography and economies.  Central to these societies, were Druids, or pagan priests who acted as bards, overseers of sacrifices, leaders of rituals, philosophers, and intermediaries between gods and goddesses (Grunke, 2008).  Because of this diversity, it could be assumed that the role of women differed from place to place or over time, with some evidence of more power than their Roman counterparts.  Still, it is important to note that Iron Age Celts were patriarchal.  As such, the role of women in Celtic society should not be idealized.  Nevertheless, even after the conversion of Ireland to Christianity, some remnants of female power persisted in that there were two female Bishops in the 5th century: Bridget of Kildare and Beoferlic of Northumbria.  Roman Bishops protested their participation in sacrament and eventually, as more missionaries were sent to the British Isles from Rome, women were ousted from positions of power within the church.  By the Middle Ages, women could only become abbesses and nuns (Ellis, 1992).  Whatever the role of women in Celtic society, Christian views of women leave much to be desired.  Consider the following quotes:

Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the Devil’s gateway: You are the unsealer of the forbidden tree: You are the first deserter of the divine law: You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert even the Son of God had to die.  -St. Tertullian

What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman……I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.”  -St. Augustine of Hippo

As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence.” -Thomas Aquinas

“If they [women] become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth, that’s why they are there.” -Martin Luther

The selection of quotes demonstrates the dismal role of women to Christian thinkers.  Women were the originators of sin, inferior to men, and useful for little more than breeding.  With the conversion of Celtic people to Christianity, powerful female religious figures from stories and legends were recast as witches (Ellis, 1992).   Feminists often argue that Christianity actively suppressed female knowledge of herbs, medicine, contraceptives, childbirth, and nature in general.  This suppression of female knowledge and experience was continued through scientific and medical institutions.  Feminists also often argue that witch hunts were a means of controlling women and their knowledge.  Interestingly, despite stories of witches and powerful female figures, Ireland had relatively few witch hunts, with only 4-10 recorded witch trials.  Britain and Wales, on the other hand, had about 300-1000 witch trials, of which 228 were recorded.  Scotland had recorded 599 witch trials.  This is still low compared to Germany, which had 8, 188 recorded witch trials and an estimated 17,000-26,000 trials altogether.  France, Germany, and Switzerland had the largest number of witch trials (Irish witch trials, n.d.).  In all, 40,000 to 100,000 people were killed for being witches.  Of these, 20% were men, though the gender ratio varied from country to country.  The witch hunts were the bloodiest after the Reformation, when Catholics and Protestants were competing for souls (Miller, 2005).  It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore the various theories regarding the cause of these witch hunts, but it is at least safe to assume that notions of gender and female sinfulness at least were convenient tropes that could be drawn upon to justify the threat of witches.

To make a long story short, Halloween originates from the Celtic holiday of Samhain.  The Celts were converted to Christianity, and Samhain, like other pagan holidays, was Christianized into All Saints Day.  The conversion to Christianity resulted in a diminished role for women in society and the denigration of female legendary figures as witches.  However, it was the trade of one patriarchal society for another, albeit one with codified hyper misogyny through religious texts and religious thinkers who believed women were little more than sinful broodmares.

Modern Halloween:


Today, most people do not spend Halloween praying for the souls of people in purgatory or honoring saints.  Modern Halloween was made possible by several social changes: the advent of capitalism, the secularization of society, and the invention of childhood.  With the advent of capitalism, the world became more interconnected and globalized.  This interconnectedness has resulted in massive shifts in populations around the world.  Within the United States, this resulted in an influx of immigrants.  As a result of the Potato Famine, 500,000 Irish immigrants came to the United States between 1845-1850.  In fact, half of all immigrants to the United States were of Irish origin at that time.  Between 1851 and 1860, 2 million Irish immigrants came to the United States to escape poverty and disease, or join relatives who had come in the 1840s (Destination America, 2005).  These Irish immigrants helped to popularize Halloween celebrations in the United States, sharing such traditions as wearing costumes while going door to door for food or money and fortune telling (History of halloween, 2009).  Rather than the earlier Catholic traditions of exchanging prayers for food, 19th century children would exchange songs, jokes, or poetry in exchange for money or fruit (Fraser 2015).  This represented a turn away from religious traditions as the public sphere allowed for more secularism.  Another tradition brought by the Irish was, Jack-o-Lanterns, which came from custom of carving turnips for Halloween and the story of Stingy Jack.  Stingy Jack was believed to roam the earth with a lantern, as he was denied entrance to both heaven and hell.  Though the immigrants used the more plentiful pumpkin to carve rather than a turnip (Fraser, 2015).

It is quaint to consider that many of our Halloween traditions came to the United States as a result of Irish immigration.  However, it is important to point out that the tragedy of the potato famine was not caused by an unfortunate fungus.  Instead, the true blight was British colonialism.   In 1801, the Act of the Union went into effect in Ireland.  It was a free trade agreement which sought to integrate Ireland into the British economy by reducing tariffs, merging currencies, ending the Irish parliament, and retooling the economy towards British needs.  In the subsequent years, the Irish economy became centered on exports of barley, wheat, potatoes, linen, cotton, and livestock.  As the economy shifted towards a cash crop export focus, poverty and unemployment increased across the country.  At the same time, the land became increasingly overused.  To enforce the subjugation of Ireland, there was one British soldier per 80 Irish persons, more than any other colony.  The extreme poverty of rural Irish people, resulting from the Act of the Union, increased their dependence upon potatoes.  Potatoes themselves were introduced to Ireland from British colonies.  Thus, when the potato crop failed in 1844, one of several crop failures over the previous fifty years, it hit an already beleaguered population.  And, the Irish themselves were blamed for this as Malthus considered the famine a matter of “survival of the fittest” among an overpopulated people.  Yet, even during the famine, more wheat and barley were exported to Britain than the three years prior to 1845 and livestock continued to be exported even as people starved.  During the famine, impoverished farmers were evicted from their land and former slave ships were repurposed for carrying Irish immigrants to the U.S.  Thus, the famine actually revitalized the shipping industry (McCann, 2011).  In this sense, the spread of Halloween was made possible by the colonial plunder of the Irish economy.



Aside from the Irish contributions to the celebrations of Halloween, the holiday gained popularity during the Victorian Age with fortune telling, ghost stories, and parties.  However, the biggest boon for Halloween was the commercialization of the holiday during the early 1900s.  Magazines of the era told women how to host Halloween parties and rotary clubs began hosting Halloween celebrations (A most bewitching night, 2008).  In 1927, the word Trick or Treating was first used in the U.S. to describe children exchanging threats of pranks in exchange for treats (Fraser, 2015).   The holiday became a family holiday after World War Two (Dvorack, 2010) and it was during the 1950s that trick or treating became common across the country.  The 1950s also saw the explosion of the horror film industry as well as the manufacture of decoration and greeting cards (A most bewitching night, 2008).  The commercialization and family orientation of Halloween in the post-WWII era was the result of several social trends.  Firstly, the United States emerged from World War II as a hegemonic power with little capitalistic competition in the realm of military, diplomacy, and economics.  The Marshall Plan pumped thirteen billion dollars into Europe to rebuild it, but also refashion the world as a consumer of U.S. goods.  This allowed for an increase in living standards, wages, and employment, but also an increase in births and marriages.  These benefits were not shared equally among society, as the United States was racially divided and actively persecuted anyone who did not share in the consensus of consumerism.  Thus, it is no wonder that Halloween emerged as a family friendly consumer holiday during this time period.  Furthermore, the period also saw the rise of youth culture.  This itself was made possible by Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which outlawed child labor, as well as compulsory education laws from the earlier portion of the 1900s and the high school education movement.  In other words, the spread of trick or treating represented a view that children should be enjoying candy rather than making it in factories, accompanied by living standards that did not require child labor.

Slut Shaming and the Rise of the Sexy Costume:

The United States has long since lost its place as the only dominant economy in the world.  Since the 1970s, the United States has had to once again compete with the rebuilt economies of Europe and Japan, as well as newly emerging economies.  Despite diminishing living standards, the consumerism of Halloween continues.  As the same time, Halloween has shifted from its focus on kids and families to adults.  This shift is best illustrated by the rise of the sexy Halloween costume.  The sexy Halloween costume can be traced to Greenwich village in the 1970s.  Greenwich Village hosted a family friendly Halloween parade, but also was a center of gay culture.  The LGBT community pushed the boundary of sexualized, gender bending costumes.  This is also true of Castro Street in San Francisco and West Hollywood.  The 1970s also saw the commercialization of Halloween (Conger, 2013).  The 1940s and 1950s saw the commercialization of children’s costumes and trick-or-treating, but the 1970s expanded this into the adult market.  Sexy costumes have become so popular that since the early 2000s, they make up 90-95% of the female costumes (Conger, 2013).  As a whole, adults spend 1.4 billion on Halloween costumes  (Stampler, 2014).

As mentioned earlier, costumes have long been a part of Halloween celebrations.  Originally, Samhain costumes were not sexy, as they were meant to confuse the souls of the dead (Labarre, 2011).   Still, the holiday does have a history of testing boundaries.  For instance, young male choristers in churches dressed like virgins on All’s Hallow Eve (Stampler, 2014).  The supernatural obsessed Victorians dressed as creepy characters, such as bats and ghosts, but also exotic characters such as Egyptians and gypsies.  However, these parties were mostly for the upper class who had the leisure and means to host Halloween parties.  The sexy maid costume also originated during this time period among an upper class who actually had maids.  Maids themselves were sometimes expected to perform sexual duties as part of their employment, so the sexualization of the profession was not much of a leap.  After WWII, when Halloween became more of a children’s holiday, adult costumes weren’t particularly sexy.  This matched the conservative atmosphere of the day (Stampler, 2014).  In reality, the 1950s version of Halloween was an aboration from the more adult centered history of the holiday (Labarre, 2011).  The social space for sexier costumes was really opened up by the feminist movement.  Legalized birth control and abortion enabled greater exploration of sexual boundaries in the 1960s and 1970s.  Thus, costumes began to push the boundaries of sexiness, but also violent gore, as these things appeared in popular culture.  Since then, the sexy costume has exploded to the degree that sexiness has moved towards irony, with costumes such as sexy lobsters, sexy peeps, or sexy sesame street characters (Stampler, 2014).  My friend Jenny and I were squarely on the ironically sexy bandwagon with our sexy janitor costumes.



As many women have embraced revealing costumes, this has resulted in slut shaming.  Halloween itself has been nicknamed “Slutoween.”  Slut shaming is calling a woman a slut or ho as a punishing identity for perceived promiscuity.  At the same time, heterosexual women are expected to be sexy as part of the gender performance.  Someone close to me once criticized an outfit I wore when I went out, telling me that I was asking to be sexually accosted.  The same person has commented on my drooping bottom as I have gotten older.  I am both expected to be sexy and be not sexy.  This is the catch 22 of being female.  Personally, I don’t mind looking sexy or unsexy.  I can be zombie Che Guevara, Lord Licorice, a nerdy Scarecrow, Sailor Socialism, or a sexy janitor.  I like to have fun looking sexy and looking unsexy.  But, in the larger society, shaming is a way for men to control the conduct of women and women to police the conduct other women.  For some women, it might be liberating to wear sexy costumes, as it allows for escapism from everyday life and an opportunity to be someone different.  On the other hand, some women might object to being objectified and regret that there are social pressures to look sexy.  Certainly, the over-sexualization of girl’s costumes is also concerning.  Irrespective of how a woman chooses to dress, she should not be slut shamed because what she wears does not reflect her sexual desires or ask for sexual advances (How to celebrate halloween without being sexist).  Slut shaming is harmful to women because it justifies the sexual assault of women.  At the same time, embracing “slut” isn’t necessarily empowering, as it may put women at risk for sexual assault or being blamed (Tannenbaum, 2015).  Once again, this is another catch 22 of being female.  It is disempowering to embrace “slut” and shaming to reject it.

Halloween should be approached in a nuanced fashion.  Feminists should absolutely stand up to the slut shaming of women who wear sexy costumes.  Nothing is to be gained by shaming women for conforming to an expected gender performance, for escapism, or for expressing their sexuality in this fashion.  At the same time, feminists should also critique the narrow expressions of female gender expressions and the social consequences of costumes which turn women and girls into sex objects.  The glorification and trivialization of sex work, which ignores the social conditions of sex workers, should also be called into question.

Halloween and Women’s Labor:

On the other end of the oppression spectrum is the oppression of women who are mothers.  Thinking back to my own childhood memories of Halloween, I can remember many fond memories of creative costumes, Trick-or-Treating, and parties.  I remember that my mother sewed me a wonderful cat costume.  She also made me a tooth fairy costume and several others.  My mother (and sometimes my father too), would take me Trick-or-Treating.  Some houses had popcorn balls and other homemade treats.  The majority of these memories are possible because of the invisible and unpaid labor of women.  My mother was not paid to make my costume.  She was not paid to take me Trick-or-Treating.  The kindly older women were not paid to make Halloween treats.  My grandma was not paid to make caramel apples or cookies.  These are the labors of love that women do for children because it is expected of them.  As a child, I could never appreciate the magic of these memories.  Childhood was simply created for me to consume and enjoy.  As an adult, I see that these cherished memories represent the exploited labor of women.

According to Marxist feminism, the unpaid labor of women serves a purpose of perpetuating capitalism.  This is accomplished through reproducing workers (the children who are raised to be the workers of the future) and maintaining current workers (through the care of men who are presently workers).  Women provide a service to society by caring for children, the sick, elderly, and husbands (Thompson, 2014).  This unpaid service in the private realm of the household means that capitalists can enjoy greater profits in the public realm.  This may seem to have little connection to Halloween, until one considers the ways in which holidays extract enormous amounts of unpaid labor from women, especially mothers.  While holidays are meant to be fun, and may even result in time off of work, women do not enjoy time off of work if they are expected to create costumes, holiday meals, decorations, treats, or parties for children or family members.  At the same time, society abounds with messages that women are expected to create.  Pinterest perfectly represents this social pressure.  It is no wonder that a survey of 7000 mothers on pinterest found that 42% of respondents felt stressed by the image sharing social media site (The social network that is stressing mom’s out, 2013).

Pinterest, or for that matter Facebook, creates a fantasy of parenthood.   In particular, it constructs motherhood and gender expectations.  After all, in 2012, 60% of pinterest visitors were women.  One in five women over the age of 18 is a Pinterest user (How pinterest is killing feminism, 2012).  It is an ideal world of perfectly carved pumpkins, cute costumes, fun party activities, pretty decorations, and delicious desserts.  The reality is that parenting in the U.S. does not look like this.  In 2011, 40% of all births were to single mothers.  In 2007, 1.5 million children had parents in jail.  In 2012, there were 2.7 chronic neglect cases reported in the U.S. as parents increasingly struggle to meet the basic needs of their children (Balmer, 2016).  The U.S. does not offer paid maternity leave and is woefully deficient in available day care.  In 2015, 20% of adults were in the lowest income tier, compared to 13% in 2003.  In 2015, the middle class (as defined as a household that makes 42,000 to 126,000), comprised of about 50% of Americans, which is down from 61% in 1971.  While there were some gains in the number of Americans in upper income households since 1971, from 4% to 9%, the lowest income group increased from 16% to 20%.  During this time, the wealth of adults over 65 increased, but young adults have become poorer (“The American Middle Class is losing ground, 2015).  If more middle class people are joining the ranks of the poor, arguably there is more pressure for women to care for and maintain the happiness of their families.  Any penny pinching costume ideas, party favors, or treats represent unpaid labor in the interest of diminished buying power and working conditions.  Women are left to tend to the embers of the American dream.  Without unions, home ownership, upward mobility, and nuclear families, women ameliorate the emotional toll of the crisis of capitalism.



While children have benefited from child labor laws, public education, and legal protections in the United States, children in the rest of the world do not fare as well.  They live as children in our own country lived a century ago.  Two thirds of the world’s cocoa beans come from West Africa and while many countries and chocolate companies have promised to curtail child slavery in the production of chocolate, in Ivory Coast, chocolate child labor increased 51% between 2008 and 2014 (Welder, 2015).  Children in the chocolate industry are sold by poor families or simply kidnapped.  They range from age 11 to 16 and work 80 to 100 hours a week.  The chocolate industry is a $110 billion dollar industry (Omega, 2014).

Beyond the horrors of child labor, are the ethics of Halloween costumes.  Americans were expected to spend $7.4 Billion on Halloween in 2014.  $2.2 billion was on candy and $2.8 billion on costumes.  $1.1 billion was for children’s costumes, $1.4 on adult costumes, and $350 million on pet costumes!  These costumes have been critiqued as “fast fashion” or fashion that is cheaply made and quickly disposed of.  Not only do the costumes end up in the dump.  They are full of toxins like lead, tin, flame retardants, and PVCs (Abrams, 2014).  The costumes themselves are often made in sweatshops in places such as China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, where there is little pay, no rights to unions, and long work hours.  Women make up 90% of the laborers in sweatshops, where they are subjected to sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and physical punishment (“Feminists against sweatshops,” n.d.).


From sweatshops to slut shaming, modern Halloween is haunted by the horrors of capitalist patriarchy.  Of course, the same could be said about Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, and all the other holidays we hold dear.  Further, this piece is missing important histories such as racism, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of oppression.  While this isn’t a comprehensive view of what lies behind the mask of Halloween, it should offer a little insight to how Halloween has changed over history and some gender and class issues related to the holiday.  Finally, it is not enough to uncover the child labor in Halloween chocolate, fast fashions, slut shaming, consumerism, and unpaid labor.  Something must be done to change it.  To this end, building social/labor movements is the best starting point.  Within these movements, we can stand up against sexism and slut shaming and demand pay for unpaid labor, equal pay for paid labor, shame and boycott stores that utilize sweatshop labor, and consider consumer choices while putting pressure on producers to elevate the working conditions and improve the environmental consequences of production.  Rather than being haunted by a world of horrors, the world should be haunted by the specter of revolution.


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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.  

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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Bellesiles, M. (2010). 1877: America’s year of living violently. New Press, The.

Berberoglu, B. (Ed.). (2012). Beyond the global capitalist crisis: The world economy in transition. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd..

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Freeman, J. (n.d.) Labor Day: From Protests to Picnics, Retrieved September 03, 2016 from

Jay Cooke, Banker and Railroad Financier.  Retrieved September 03, 2016 from American Rails

Lubetkin, M. J. (2014). Jay Cooke’s Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad, the Sioux, and the Panic of 1873. University of Oklahoma Press.

Ruyle, E. (2014, August 31). The True History of Labor Day: Debunking the Myth, Retrieved September 03, 2016 from

Sassoon, D. (2013, April 29). To Understand this Crisis we Can Look to the Long Depression Too. Retrieved September 03, 2016 from

Warren J. (2014, August 31). Retrieved September 03, 2016 from

White, R. (2003). Information, Markets, and Corruption: Transcontinental Railroads in the Gilded Age. The Journal of American History, 90(1), 19-43. Retrieved from

Wolmar, C. (2007). Fire & Steam: a new history of the railways in Britain. London: Atlantic Books. ISBN 978-1-84354-630-6.

Getting Older

My birthday month is coming to an end.  I enjoy my birthday, but there is also a certain melancholy with growing older.  I really celebrated my birthday this year.  I wrote cards, drank chai tea, went to the planetarium, went for a run, visited family, had a fun birthday party with friends, and enjoyed art.   The finale was a snowshoe hike/star gazing session with UMD’s RSOP.  It was fun to enjoy the woods at night and awkwardly clamber up a snowy hill to view a clear night sky at Harley Nature Center.  I was the only community member in the group, so I felt like an old weirdo among the young college kids!  I have a great deal to be thankful for: health, energy, youthfulness, friends, relatives, curiosity, and fun.


(The giant cupcake that Jenny made for my b-day)

Despite the many things I am thankful for, I’ve been in a state of existential crisis since about age 23.  How does one live?  How does one live well?  What is the right path to take in life?  I think about these questions almost everyday, making lists and inventing myths about the person I want to be.  Living is hard.  There are a smorgasbord of possible experiences.  Even if a person was not limited by class, gender, sexuality, race, age, ability, etc. we are limited by a finite amount of time.  We live… then we die, and its over.  What makes for a good life?

Birthdays are a reminder of mortality.  My time is short and I have exhausted so much of it.  Have I wasted it?  Could I have done something differently?  Am I on the right trajectory?   Maybe the formula is quite simple.  For many people, life consists of getting married, having kids, owning a house, saving for retirement, and the many good memories with friends and families.  For others, this formula may be flavored by a career or perhaps the career is an end unto itself.  There are a few people who are adventurers, who never settle, moving from place to place for new adventures and a carefree life.  I am none of these people.  I have never wanted a house.  I don’t want a nice car.  I don’t want children, nor could I afford them if I did want them.  I don’t want to be married.  A career might be nice, but I happy to have a job that I find meaningful.  My mundane life of work and school is sometimes punctuated by adventures, but these are an oasis and not the norm.  Is there something else?  Something more to do?
 (What more could I ask for?  Friends, cake, balloons, flowers, a fake squirrel…)
So, here I am.  I never had a realistic vision for my future.   With the same realism as a preschooler who envisions that they will grow up to be a donut with sprinkles, as I was growing up, I figured that I would be a super villain, riding on the shoulder of a giant mulch monster that I created with my advanced botanical powers/knowledge.  I am not sure why I was a villain.  I definitely have not obtained my Ph.d in evil plant science.  Maybe we can all be glad that I didn’t turn out to be a villain, crushing buildings and all that oppose me.  And, there is always time for the botany.  And, it’s never too late for the green hair.  Or the Ph.D.  That’s something.  Whatever I am, I am not a villain.
Getting older is bittersweet.  When I was younger, I would celebrate with large birthday parties, but many of my friends have moved.  I stand still.  Of course, I still have friends, but I do feel that the world moves around me.  I have seen many people move many directions, towards careers and towards families.  Getting older is also a little bittersweet because of the emphasis on youthfulness.  I am not a glowing, thin, young person.  I am still young-ish, but there are markers of a new era in life.  I don’t feel as pretty as I did at 25.   It shouldn’t matter, but I have internalized to some degree the expectation that women shouldn’t age.

I guess, I am always left feeling that I should be MORE.  Maybe it is a cultural mentality that more is better.  Even the magazine for older women is called More.  (Oddly enough, this magazine will be no more in April).  What more should I be?  More accomplished, more fit, more dynamic…more successful.  Successful how?  Perhaps published…working on grand things like books and papers.  Working on a Ph.D.?  A professor?  Multilingual?  More talented.  More of an activist.  More of a leader.  More responsible.  More future oriented.  An expert at something.  A polymath at several things.  More admirable and interesting.  Is it to much to ask that I could just suddenly become a vibrant, creative, revolutionary socialist feminist leader…scholar…activist…world traveler…confident…multifaceted…scientist…environmentalist…fantasy author…artist…runner…bicyclist…riding on the shoulder of a giant mulch monster…crushing patriarchy and capitalism with her awesomeness …an awesomeness that nothing MORE can be added to?

In the end, I have a good life.  I am not always sure that my choices were the right ones or that I am living as one should, but I am generally happy.  Although some people might deem it excessive and wasteful, I am thankful for my travels.  This year, I will reach 50 countries that I have visited.  I find this important, even if numbers don’t matter that much.  I always wanted to see the world.  I can’t wait to see more of it.  Although it is also excessive and could easily be critiqued as irresponsible, wasteful, and pointless, I am proud that I will finish my 4th degree this year, even if it isn’t a Ph.D. and I always attended local colleges (for the most part).  And, I am thankful for the activism, few good friends, my garden, my job, my health, my hobbies, my books, and some of the interesting experiences I’ve had.  This all seems pretty small!  It seems that everyone accomplishes so much…MORE.  (Yes, I have a stilted perception of the world that everyone is somehow a super star doing everything awesomely, while I just muck around in the mud.  Working with people who struggle to finish high school or find even a job unfortunately does not mitigate this distortion.)   Anyway, as I grow older, I certainly feel a strong sense of mediocrity, but most people don’t live and die as superstars or super heroes.  Some die as obscure weirdos.

12 Things I did on my B-Day


My birthday is February 12th, the same as Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.   I enjoy celebrating my birthday, so here is an over view of how I spent the day.

  1. 3 Mile Jog:  One of the first things I did today was go on a jog at the track at UWS.  I am not fast and I haven’t jogged since x-mas.  In anticipation of unhealthy indulgences, it was a good way to start the day.
  2. Passport Renewal:  My passport does not actual expire until 2019, but it is already full!  I was running out of blank pages and the State Department no longer offers to add pages for you.  So, off to the post office with hope for future travels and an unflattering photo that will mark my passport for 10 years.1336500007861
  3. Ice Sculpture: Some people think it is a waste of money and an eye sore, but I like it.  What better way to spend a subzero day than with a giant ice sculpture?  I like that it reminds me of a cave, due to the ice resembling stalactites.DSCF2593
  4. Filled out Valentine’s Day cards and sent them off!
  5. Drank a chai latte at the Red Mug.  I did this while writing the cards.  Several months ago, I didn’t like chai or chai latte.  There was too much flavor going on.  Over time and attempts of drinking them, I have grown to like it.DSCF2595
  6. Visit the library: this was a fun, free activity.  I left with some garden and travel books.
  7.  Duluth Labor History Art Reception at Red Herring Lounge.  How could I pass up artwork that was inspired by Duluth labor history?!  The art was by Robert Adams.  I don’t know art history well enough to describe the art, but following the topic, it was very geometric and industrial.  It reminded me of Soviet art or WPA art.  Maybe a bit like Soviet modernism, with strict lines and focus on architectural structures.  The art also seemed to make use of tape or plastic, which made it unique.  Again, I don’t know enough about art or art history to do credit to the style.12552964_10207265507052524_4738820122576273646_n                                        (Photo was from Red Herring Lounge Facebook Event)
  8. UMD Planetarium: The topic tonight was Voyager I and II.  It was a retro topic with a retro video voiced by Patrick Stewart.  It was interesting to learn how the Voyagers communicated with Earth.  They used radio signals, but these were so faint that multiple, giant saucer like radio receivers had to be used to pick up the signal.  Then, the signal had to be isolated from the background radiation of space?  Images were sent back as dots, which were translated into images.   The video was made in 1989.  In the end, it discussed the Voyagers journeying on into interstellar space, their signals becoming a whisper until they go quiet.   The scientific instruments will slowly lose power and it will float on, perhaps passing Gleise 445 in 40,000 years.  There’s a happy b-day thought.  A dead machine floating forever in space.  pia17046_-_voyager_1_goes_interstellar
  9. Pizza Hut with my pal, Adam.   We were by UMD, so we went to Pizza Hut.  I had breadsticks.  In a way, it reminded me of being a kid-as Pizza Hut was really exciting back then.  In more recent years, my gut can’t handle the grease.
  10. Trying to figure out a cruise.  I was supposed to go on a cruise with my sister in law, Tiffany.  However, something has come up so she must cancel.  I still plan on going, but I am trying to figure out how to cancel her without having to pay terrible fees (which I thought I avoided by getting the trip protection plan).  Anyway, if it all works out, I will be going to Barbados, Grenada, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Kitts in April.  I regret that I will be traveling alone…again!  But, I am sure I will have a fun time. 2333b930b5ef2e1cd62e519387b5b058
  11. Looked at my library books.  Well, this can be fun!  I have one on 1001 gardens to see before you die.
  12. Wrote a blog post about 12 things I did.

Christmas In Hawaii

The holidays are over, which gives me more time to reflect.  As such, I thought about my favorite Christmas ever… which was the Christmas I spent in Hawaii with my brother.  In 2014, back when I was doing Americorps service at the Boys and Girls Club as the learning center coordinator (i.e. I was living in extreme poverty), my brother kindly paid for my mother and I to visit him in Oahu.  So, these are some highlights of that memory.


Cheap Flight:  We flew Spirit Air, which was an adventure in itself.  We had to pay more to have a checked bag, so my mother and I pinched pennies by stuffing our clothes and everything else into small carry on bags.  Even their carry on requirements were pretty strict.  Everything on the flight required money and there was an eight hour layover in Los Vegas.  Nevertheless, it was memorable if only for the challenge of packing less and not becoming too grouchy during the layover and long flight.


Polynesian Center:  My brother and I went to the pricey Polynesian Center, which was pretty fascinating.  It was fascinating because it was run by Mormons and many of the performers and workers were recruited from various islands by missionaries and are students at Brigham Young University.  The Mormon influence was subtle, but includes more modest dress and a free shuttle to the LDS church.  The center consisted of various villages representing an array of Pacific islands.  At these villages were performances, displays, and lessons.  I tried a Polynesian dance lesson, watched a coconut uses demonstration, listened to a lecture about Polynesian navigation, and observed several dance/musical performances.  One highlight was a floating parade of boats featuring dancers from each island.  My mother opted to go to the beach that day.
Bishop Museum:  No one seemed enthused to go to the Bishop Museum, as it seemed a little spendy and we had already done quite a lot.  But, I love museums.  The Bishop museum was excellent, with a giant Nene to sit on, magnificent cloaks made of red, black, and yellow feathers, a Planetarium, scientific and cultural artifacts, and lectures.  We went to a presentation on volcanoes and another on Polynesian ethnobotany.


Botanical Gardens:  I feel that we went to three botanical gardens while visiting my brother.  Some people like going to beaches and relaxing with drinks.  I like learning.  ALL THE TIME.  But, what a wonderful opportunity!  Because of its isolation, Hawaii has many unique plants and birds.  Of course, the endemic plants and animals have been challenged by the many exotic, introduced species that continue to bombard the islands.  The botanical gardens showcased non-native plants, such as those used for commercial use and interesting plants from throughout the Pacific.  We visited the Lyon Arboretum, where we saw a small waterfall and went on a hike…only to get rained on. We also visited the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden, where we fed some ducks and geese at a small pond.  Another garden was Koko Head’s Crater, which was massive, dry, and featured a large collection of African plants and cacti.  I feel that we probably visited another garden as well, but I can’t remember off the top of my head.  The best thing about the botanical gardens was that they were actually very empty.  We were among the few people to visit them- perhaps because other tourists aren’t as in to plants?
(Note: I don’t think this particular hibiscus is native to Hawaii)

Pearl Harbor:  I don’t have a patriotic bone in my body.  I am somewhat indifferent to both the victory and defeat of imperialist Japan against imperialist U.S.   How can I defend the US?  During World War II, we imprisoned socialists…in my own state of Minnesota, no less…and sent Japanese citizens to concentration camps.  We bombed civilians with ATOMIC WEAPONS.  Of course, I don’t want 2000 people of any nationality to die, but the death of Americans is never uniquely tragic to me (as compared to the deaths of any other nation).  But, Pearl Harbor is a place where tourists go.  So we ritualistically lined up early in the morning, waited, and visited Pearl Harbor.  The visit was memorable in that it was a good study of sociological phenomenon such as “feeling rules” and presentation of self.  The American tourists at the site behaved in sober, quiet, reflective, ways…as these are the feeling rules of visiting such a place.  Like church, children were expected to behave, not climb on things, not shout, and “be good.”  Some Asian tourists broke the unspoken feeling rules by smiling, laughing, and taking fun photos.  This is no offense to Asians, but perhaps the don’t feel as compelled to follow the rules.  However, once the Americans were back in the parking lot, everyone was loud, rowdy, and energetic again.  They had left the public space and were backstage, to use Goffman’s metaphor.  It was interesting to watch the performance of reflective patriotism give way to more everyday expressions of self.  I also saw the USS Arizona burp oil into the ocean.  Is that good for the environment?

Byodo-in:  My brother lived right across the street from a Buddhist temple.  We visited the temple on Christmas Day, which was not only enormously fun and beautiful…it was vaguely sacrilegious.  The temple had a bell, a few nice trails, bamboo patches of forest, koi ponds, and a Buddha statue.  My mother was awkward about the Buddha statue, which I suppose seemed like idolatry to her.  I was also a little awkward about the Buddha statue since I never know the right etiquette and it is a bit of a hassle to take off my shoes.  Still, it was a lovely place and a great way to walk off Christmas dinner.
Christmas Hike:  Christmas morning, my brother and I went on a hike on a nearby hill/mountain.  The trail was impossibly muddy, making the journey dangerously slippery and messy. It was fun to spend my time doing something active with my brother.  Christmas should be for hiking and enjoying nature…not sitting around, eating, and watching TV.
Taro Pies and Sushi:  My brother lived walking distance from a McDonalds and a sushi place.  So, several days involved visits to the sushi restaurant for really cheap sushi.  The sushi in Duluth tends to be a little expensive.  On Oahu, it was as cheap as fast food (at least it seemed this way to me).  I also ate taro pies from McDonalds.  I enjoyed the novelty of eating a pie filled with a gelatinous, sweet, purple tuber.

(Taro, before Ronald McDonald turns it into a pie.)

Diamond head State Park:  My mother, Tiffany, and I hiked up the Diamond head crater for a lovely view of Honolulu.  I am proud of my mother for making it all the way up the almost two mile trail (which included a tunnel and a lot of steps).  It was pretty hot that day too.  My mother was pretty good sport and went on a couple hikes.


(My mother and Tiffany, not enjoying the hike)


Whale Watching:  We all went on a whale watching boat excursion and had a few sightings of humpback whales.  Layton, who was probably only about 2 then, searched the water for whales (looking over the side of the boat).  It was a whale of a good time.


(My mother and the sunset)

Crabby Brother:  My brother was memorably crabby during the trip.  I suppose he did pay for the trip and the activities, as well as drove us around.  This is pretty stressful and underlines the lack of public transportation/traffic nightmare that is Oahu.  I had enough fun for four people, so too bad I couldn’t redistribute my good mood to the less fortunate.

Stray cats and chickens:  My brother and I went out to feed stray cats and chickens on the day after Christmas.  We fed them the remains of the Christmas ham.  Oddly, the cats were at the bottom of the pecking order…cowering from the fierce flock of feral chickens.  I think we might have seen another botanical garden after this, but I don’t remember.
This was a truly magical Christmas.  It was the way Christmas should be.  Christmas often stresses me out with its social obligations, financial burden, cold, and oppressive presence through trees, songs, sales, traffic, consumerism, religious battles, etc. But that Christmas seemed like a nice escape from it all.  Instead of cold, it was tropical.  Instead of tons of gifts, it was a few things we could fit in our carry-on.  There was a Christmas dinner, but this was a minor event compared to the Christmas hike and Christmas temple visit.  There was family time, but instead of the familiar setting of Minnesota and home, it was far away and exotic. And, it was far less stressful as it was only a few immediate family members. There was learning, botany, volcanoes, hikes, stray cats, Mormons, taro pies, whales, and sushi.  The trip sparked an interest in Polynesian history.  Of course, my wonderful Christmas was only possible because of crushing U.S. imperialism which put Hawaii under its yoke and a tourist industry that commodities Hawaiian nature and culture while at the same time destroying both.  But, politics aside, it was enjoyable.


I will probably never have a Christmas as fun as the one spent in Hawaii in 2014.  But, life is long!

Brainy Scarecrow Halloween Costume


While shopping at Savers I found the perfect hat.  It appears to be made from a burlap rice bag, perhaps from India or Bangladesh.  I knew I had to have it and this would be the foundation of my Halloween costume: a scarecrow.

Scarecrows are a bit overdone, so I decided that I would be a Brainy Scarecrow.  My reasoning is that there is this awful stereotype that scarecrows are brainless.  Like many stereotypes, this has been reinforced by the media, namely, The Wizard of Oz.  So, I sought to present scarecrows in a different light.

So, the costume consists of a plaid shirt, the aforementioned hat, a craft crow that I found at Michaels, overalls, and a scarf.  To make the costume more brainy, I am wearing glasses from a nerd costume and carrying a calculator, pens, and pencils.


What does a brainy scarecrow do?  Well, they enjoy reading.  This is me reading a brochure about composting.  The environment and green living are probably very important to brainy scarecrows, as they spend so much time in fields and gardens (when not in libraries and classrooms).

DSCF2368 DSCF2369

Brainy scarecrows also have a complicated relationship with crows.  The purpose of scaring crows is to protect crops, but crows are intelligent, beautiful birds that should not be starved or frightened.  So, brainy scarecrows appreciate and study crows as their comrades of the field.  After all, scarecrows are put into the fields by farmers and never paid for their labor nor allowed to benefit from the farming enterprise (but for the hats and overalls they are given to wear).


Brainy scarecrows are often critical of capitalism.  Thus, here is my hammer and sickle Jack-o-Lantern.


Brainy scarecrows are also critical of patriarchy and don’t believe that reproductive choice is scary.  They are wiling to raise their voice in support of women and won’t tolerate any “staw man” arguments that we want legalized murder.


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