Friday, June 17, 2016

New Publication: "Encounters in the Fairy Hill"

The Spring 2016 issue of The Bottle Imp, the online journal of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, is devoted to Naomi Mitchison. Included in the issue is my essay "Encounters in the Fairy Hill," exploring the connections between Mitchison's children's book The Fairy Who Couldn't Tell a Lie (1963) and her memoir of becoming an honorary member of the Bakgatla tribe in Botswana, Return to the Fairy Hill (1966). It's about imagination and encountering difference.

My two earlier essays on Mitchison—“Naomi Mitchison: Peaceable Transgressor" (New England Review) and "'Real and Not Real': Naomi Mitchison's Philosophy of the Historical Novel” (Readings)—were recently reprinted in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, vol. 327, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau (Gage/Cengage Learning 2016). 

Monday, May 30, 2016

A Pioneer of Women's Rights: Phebe Sudlow, the First Female School Superintendent in the United States

In 1860, twenty-nine year old Phebe Sudlow had been teaching for twelve years—for most of that time in a one-room school schoolhouse in rural Scott County, Iowa—when she was appointed principal at Grammar School No. 2 in the city of Davenport.

When she found that the salary she had been offered was less than that of a male colleague in the same position, Sudlow she brought up the issue with the school board. At the time, lower salaries for women were justified on the grounds that female teachers—unmarried women who left teaching when they married—had only themselves, while male teachers had families to support. The school board refused to raise Sudlow’s pay, but she continued to press the issue.

In 1874, when she was chosen to become Davenport’s superintendent of schools, she again approached the school board and refused to accept the position unless her salary was equal to that of her male predecessor.

“Gentlemen,” she told the school board, “if you are cutting the salary because of my experience, I have nothing to say; but if you are doing this because I am a woman, I’ll have nothing more to do with it.

The school board agreed to Sudlow’s conditions, and she was hired as the first female superintendent of schools in the United States. Thanks to Sudlow’s efforts, the teachers’ contract in Davenport was changed to offer equal pay to men and women—decades before this became the standard practice elsewhere.

In an address given as the first female  president of the Iowa State Teachers Association in 1877, Sudlow said: "I cannot understand why equal attainment, equal culture, and equal strength of purpose and will should not have equal influence whether in man or woman."

The following year, she was hired as the first female professor at the University of Iowa. As one newspaper reported: "Every institution of this kind should have at least one lady in its faculty; and we know of no one more worthy to fill the place than Miss Sudlow."

(Photo from the Davenport School Museum)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

New Publication: "Bee Line: How the Honey Bee Defined the American Frontier"

My essay "Bee Line: How the Honey Bee Defined the American Frontier" has been published in the online journal Readings. The essay traces the spread of the honey bee, an introduced species, in advance of white settlement, and examines what bee hunting tells us about property rights on the frontier.

The essay looks at references to honey bees and bee hunting in 18th- and 19th-century travelers' accounts, as well as in 19th-century stories and novels by Caroline Kirkland, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and others.

I started working on the essay in 2007, and abandoned it until late last year, when I rediscovered the fragmentary essay in a file on my computer and decided to complete it. This writing method is not uncommon with me.

Readings is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal that aims to publish scholarship accessible to a general audience. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Supermarket Shakespeare

ROMEO & JULIET 
a true story
by William Shakespeare

Scene: EconoFoods, night
Dramatis Personae: two teenage checkout girls, Rob

Girl #1: What yonder window!
Girl #2: What yonder window?
Girl #1: What yonder window!
Girl #2: What does that even mean? What yonder window?
Girl #1 (showing Girl #2 a piece of paper): That's how it goes. Look. What yonder window!
Girl #2: I think you must have copied it wrong.
Girl #1: No no no. That's how it goes. What yonder window!
Girl #2: But—
Rob: WHAT LIGHT THROUGH YONDER WINDOW BREAKS!
Girl #2 (finally noticing the person standing in her lane): Paper or plastic?

Friday, February 19, 2016

Beethoven in Detroit




Last weekend, I had a powerful urge to listen to Beethoven's Egmont Overture.

As often happens, because of my psychic connection to the classical radio station, it was played on the radio a few days later. 

It reminded me of my first encounter with the complete symphonies of Beethoven, in a 1978 PBS series which presented the nine symphonies in live performances by the Detroit Symphony, conducted by Antal Dorati. What I remember most vividly is the Egmont Overture playing over a scene of Dorati on a tugboat on the Detroit River. 

For Christmas that year, I got a recording of the complete symphonies (with the Egmont Overture as "filler") with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Sir Georg Solti. The Egmont always conjured up, at least in the back of my mind, that tugboat, the river, the skyline of Detroit. My memory is of that early nineteenth-century German music transposed into a late twentieth-century Midwestern industrial landscape. 

The Hungarian conductor Antal Dorati (1906-1988) studied in Budapest under both Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók, but as a conductor made his greatest impact in the United States, as music director first in Dallas (1945-1949), then in Minneapolis (1949-1960) and Detroit (1977-1981). Dorati made dozens of recordings, including many on the Mercury "Living Presence" label with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra). He and the Minneapolis Symphony were the first to record Tchaikovsky's "1812 Orchestra" with real cannons

The PBS program with Dorati and the DSO included the conductor being interviewed about Beethoven by the actor E.G. Marshall. According to his obituaries, and Wikipedia, E.G. Marshall was born in Owatonna, Minnesota, and attended Carleton College. But according to IMDB, "archivists at Carleton College say there is no record of his ever attending that institution." 

I did find a Washington Post review of the PBS series, which complains of "an element of provincialism in the production"—meaning, I think, that it's Midwestern. "Interviews with Dorati," says the reviewer, "are conducted at sites that show off the beauties of Detroit, however irrelevant they may be to Beethoven." The review ends by mentioning the scene of Dorati on the tugboat as one of these egregious "provincialisms." 

Interesting that I would remember that scene for almost 40 years, and think of it as the moment I fell in love with Beethoven's music. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Gender Inequity on Local Boards and Commissions

In a recent commentary on Hillary Clinton’s highly-publicized bathroom break, Soraya Chemaly observes: “The male-centeredness of our opinion making and public space continues to reflect the male-centeredness of our understanding of the world.” 

It would appear at first glance that women are well represented in local government in Northfield, Minnesota. There are 4 women and 3 men on the Northfield City Council. There are 4 women and 3 men on the school board. But on city boards and commissions the situation is markedly different. I looked at the membership of thirteen city boards and commissions and found that 58% of current appointees are men (as of December 2015). Here’s the breakdown:

Board or Commission
# of male members
# of female members
Arts & Culture Commission
5
6
Charter Commission
4
0
Economic Development Authority (EDA)
9
0
Environmental Quality Board (EQB)
3
8
Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC)
6
2
Hospital Board
6
3
Housing Redevelopment Commission  (HRA)
4
6
Human Rights Commission
(HRC)
4
6
Mayor’s Task Force on Youth Alcohol & Drug Use
2
7
Parks & Recreation Advisory Board (PRAB)
7
2
Planning Commission
7
0
Rental Housing Board of Appeals
3
1
TOTAL
62
44

Not included in the numbers is the Northfield Area Fire and Rescue Services (NAFRS) joint powers board, which has no women members. Three other important bodies—the Charter Commission, the Economic Development Authority, and the Planning Commission—have no women members.

Why is gender equity on local boards and commissions important? Here’s a statement from the international organization United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG):

Local governments are key promoters of gender equality and can improve the quality of women’s lives and increase their opportunities. Increasing the number of women in local government, and taking the needs of women into consideration when developing policies and services, is essential to achieving the goals of sustainable development. It is also a question of justice and recognizing gender equality as a human right.

In Northfield, the absence of women on the Planning Commission is particularly troubling. Women tend to use and experience public space differently from men. These examples are from a UK study, but are also applicable to the United States:

There are many examples of the differently gendered uses of space. Women make more complex journeys than men, often travelling to childcare, school, work, and shops in journeys that are often referred to as “trip-chains.”* More than twice as many women as men are responsible for escorting children to school, seventy-five per cent of bus journeys are undertaken by women and only thirty per cent of women have access to the use of a car during the daytime.** Poor public transport and lack of caring facilities and shopping outlets near employment locations restrict women’s access to the labour market. Women feel less safe than men being out alone after dark, especially in the inner city, or social housing estates. Poorly considered land-use zoning policy separates residential areas from employment locations, with a greater impact on women’s mobility.

The perspective of women is needed in planning public spaces in order to create a safer and more just community for all its citizens.

*For gender differences in "trip-chaining behavior" in the U.S., see this study.
**These numbers may not reflect the actual situation in the U.S. generally, or in relatively affluent Northfield specifically. On the other hand, in the U.S. low-income families are less likely to have access to a car. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation: "One-fourth of families earning $25,000 or less don’t have a car." It would be interesting to find out how many low-income women in Northfield lack access to a car during the daytime.

Note: In 2012, the Iowa legislature mandated gender balance on local boards and commissions, and released a useful publication on how to achieve this end.
 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Second Self

One of the highlights of 2015 for me was having the opportunity to return to my alma mater, Oberlin College, to participate in a symposium to honor Professor Thomas Van Nortwick on his retirement from the college. This is what I said on that occasion.

In 1986, the year I graduated from Oberlin, Tom entered a new and important phase of his life as a classicist. That was the year he published “Travels with Odysseus” in North Dakota Quarterly. With that essay, he began a long and fruitful journey of self-examination using the classics as guides. He began to ask himself how the stories of the ancient heroes—Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Oedipus—might illuminate his own life and relationships. How could reading the Aeneid help him work through his own sense of loss? What could reading Sophocles’ Oedipus plays tell him about the cycle of his own life?

Looking back twenty-five years after the publication of that first personal essay, Tom reflected on the effect this mode of engagement with the classics had on his teaching. In another essay for NDQ, he wrote: “The detachment I had cultivated as part of my academic persona gave way to a more direct engagement with the Greek and Latin poetry I was teaching. Once I began asking myself what these stories had to do with me and my life, it was natural to ask my students the same kind of question. I didn’t invite them to write autobiography, but to ask themselves why these works ought to matter to them.”

In an essay on the Aeneid published in 1990, Tom explored Aeneas’s ambivalence about this mission and the ways in which pursuing that mission requires him to confront feminine parts of himself. Fate has cast Aeneas in a role he isn’t suited for, and that he would rather not play. He’s fallen into a life different from the one he imagined for himself, and somehow has to figure out how to live it as if it were his own.

Tom’s reading of the Aeneid and the insights it gave him into his own life came at a particularly opportune time for me. After a graduating from Oberlin in 1986, earning a Ph.D. at Brown University, and teaching for a year at Gustavus Adolphus College, I spent most of the 1990s as a stay-at-home father. After writing a dissertation on the Aeneid, I spent my days changing diapers, feeding the babies bottles of expressed breast milk, trying to get them to take naps, and pushing them in a stroller all over town. 

My role models at the time were the older women who had come to town as faculty wives in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. They had come to a small college town on the heroic journey of their husbands toward tenure, and in the process had found their own journeys. They had made homes and raised children, created art and written books, served in public office and founded important community organizations. They had adapted and thrived.

All of this began to give me a different perspective on the hero’s journey.  As a stay-at-home father, as someone who spent his late twenties and most of his thirties engaged in what was still considered women’s work, and as someone who has now reached the age of fifty without what would generally be recognized as a career, my life hasn’t exactly conformed to the heroic ideal, which for my father’s generation—the generation that shaped my expectations—at least involved a regular paycheck and some measure of professional prestige.  I found it difficult to go against such powerful expectations without an equally powerful counternarrative to give shape and meaning to the choices I made and the life that resulted from those choices.

One of the books I read early in my years as a stay-at-home father was Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing a Life, about the improvisational nature of women’s lives. Bateson contrasts the traditional hero’s journey toward a single pre-ordained goal with the shifting commitments and constant adaptations of women as they navigate the competing demands of family and career. “Women’s lives offer valuable models,” Bateson writes, “because of the very pressures that make them seem more difficult. Women have not been permitted to focus on single goals, but have tended to live with ambiguity and multiplicity.” This was certainly true of the women who became my role models, who arrived in Northfield as trailing spouses and emerged as community leaders.

In 1998, I published my first personal essay in North Dakota Quarterly, the same journal that published most of Tom’s personal essays on the classics. I wrote about being a stay-at-home father and baking bread with my sons. I wrote about a male yearning for the nurturing experience of motherhood, and illustrated my point with a brief analysis of the story of the birth of Orion in Ovid’s Fasti: the story of a man who wants a child.  I introduced the story with a quote from Louise Erdrich about the experience of breastfeeding her child. Erdrich wrote: “I realize that this is exactly the state of mind that so many male writers...describe with yearning—the mystery of an epiphany, the sense of oceanic oneness, the great yes, the wholeness.”

But as I tried to get my son to suck on a rubber nipple, I felt physically inadequate and out of harmony with my situation.  I was a cisgender, heterosexual man with a longing for the experience of motherhood.  I wasn’t able to do what a woman could do, and I wasn’t doing what a “real man” was “supposed” to do. This left me feeling, in Tom’s words, a “sense of alienation from traditional maleness.”

Those words come from the essay in North Dakota Quarterly in which Tom explored Aeneas’s ambivalence about his mission and his own uneasy relationship with his father. That 1990 essay was a milestone in Tom’s exploration of the meaning of a masculine life—both his own life and the lives of the heroes who populated Greek and Roman literature.

In Oedipus: The Meaning of a Masculine Life (1998), Tom reminds us that the heroic journey can be seen as a psychological quest that calls on the hero either to reject or reconcile with externalized aspects of himself, who appear in the form either of companions like Enkidu and Patroklos, or of adversaries like Hector and Turnus.  The encounter with this second self is central to the hero’s own development.  Tom also points out that the second self frequently offers a more “feminine” counterpart to the more masculine hero. Patroklos, for example, offers a “contrast to Achilles’ overbearing masculinity, honoring solicitude for his friends over his desire for honor, compassionate where his friend is solipsistic, defining himself through relationships rather than through the lonely competitive absolutes of Achilles.”

In his reading of the Oedipus plays, Tom writes about the hero’s journey from an assertion of autonomy to an acceptance of interdependence, from imposing his individual will on the world to recognizing his place in a universe of relationships. He writes about learning to “think less about what separates me from others and more about how I am connected to them.”  He writes about outgrowing what R.W. Connell calls “hegemonic masculinity,” and embracing a masculinity that incorporates aspects of feminine experience.  As Tom puts it: “The hero’s final evolution toward maturity and spiritual integration is marked by an acceptance within himself of those very ‘feminine’ qualities embodied by the second self.”

Once my own children started school, and I was no longer a full-time stay-at-home father, I started picking up part-time teaching jobs, including as a tutor of homeschool students. My favorite homeschool student, a young woman named Peytie, once told me that she didn’t learn as much from teachers who, as she put it, seemed to be reporting back from the end of the journey. She said she learned the most from teachers who were on the journey with her.  She’s described exactly the kind of teacher Tom has been for me over the past thirty years. With his great sensitivity and insight, he’s been a model for me as a writer.  He’s been a father figure, the kind of caring and generous man I would like to be.  He’s made me think in new ways about what the classics mean to me, and in doing so has helped me find the heroic counternarrative to make sense of my life.

Last year, Peytie and I co-wrote an essay about mentorship. I’ve known her for eleven years now, since she was fifteen. She’s an off-the-charts extrovert, she talks a mile a minute, she’s an actress who appears on stage regularly in the Twin Cities, and she teaches classes in movement and body awareness. None of those things apply to me.  But Peytie wrote something in the essay that made me think about teaching as an encounter with the second self. She wrote: “it was like my own mind had separated from itself and was teaching me.”

I often feel that way when I read Tom’s books and essays: like he’s making sense of my own thoughts.  And Peytie wrote something else that made me think of Tom.  She wrote: “The vision you have of me inspires me to be the person you see. You help me make her real.”  

Robert Inchausti writes that “the real self is the moral self. And the moral self is a second self.” It isn’t the self we are born with, but “an ethical accomplishment,” the result of a journey. This self isn’t created in isolation, but through our relationships with other people. In Inchausti’s view, the second self isn’t someone else. It’s the person we become, the identity we create—and that others help us create—on our journey through life.

I think this expresses exactly what Tom’s importance has been for me: he has the ability to see what is best and most promising in me, to see my best self, and to inspire me to be the person he sees. He’s one of the people who has made me real.