Monday, December 31, 2007


2007 was a good year. I'm going to miss it. We spent the first seven and a half months in England, soaking up as much as we could of that beautiful, historic, strange little country. Last January, I visited my first medieval cathedral, Winchester Cathedral, and stood at the foot of Jane Austen's grave. I was, at the time, a year older than she was when she died. My wise blog friend Louise has been thinking similar thoughts about the turning of the year and the passing of time. Such thoughts are probably inevitable. As Charles Lamb wrote nearly 190 years ago: "No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left."

In my days as a moody college student, it was my custom to read Lamb's essay on mortality, "New Year's Eve," while sitting by the fire on the last evening of the old year—

Every dead man must take upon himself to be lecturing me with his odious truism, that "such as he now is, I must shortly be." Not so shortly, friend, perhaps, as thou imaginest. In the mean-time I am alive. I move about. I am worth twenty of thee. Know thy betters! Thy New Years' Days are past. I survive, a jolly candidate for 1821. Another cup of wine...while that turn-coat bell, that just now mournfully chanted the obsequies of 1820 departed, with changed notes lustily rings in a successor...

It means so much more to me now, when I am two years shy of the age Lamb was when he wrote that essay. I survive, a jolly candidate for 2008. Another cup of wine... A New Year's toast to all of you, my friends!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Some Favorites of 2007

Music. I heard so much wonderful live music in 2007, beginning with The Sixteen at Tewkesbury Abbey in March in a concert featuring sixteenth-century music from the Sistine Chapel. The high point of the concert was a performance of Allegri's famous Miserere, with the high C's provided by the young Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas. Her debut solo disc, Eternal Light, was one of the recorded highlights of the year. She has a beautiful, clear, pure voice. I recently compared her recording of Handel's "Eternal Source of Light Divine" with Kathleen Battle's lovely recording with Wynton Marsalis from the early 1990s. Battle's voice is beautiful, but darker and heavier, more operatic. I prefer Thomas's silvery voice, filled with more light than darkness. If the disc has one flaw, it's that the second half is a bit too heavy on slow, sad selections, including two lachrimose pieces by Dowland and Purcell's "When I am Laid in Earth," from Dido and Aeneas. But the last selection, "Pur ti miro" from Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppaea (a duet with countertenor Robin Blaze), is breathtaking. Unfortunately, the disc is only available in the U.S. as an expensive ($35) U.K. import.

Another favorite disc of 2007 was Po' Girl's Home to You, featuring the wonderful vocals of Allison Russell. Treat yourself and check out some of her songs on Myspace. I'm looking forward to her next project, the debut CD by Sofia, the duo she formed with fellow Po' Girl Awna Teixeira.

Reading. It would be impossible to choose my one favorite book of 2007. But my favorite overall reading experience was probably that of reading Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Corner That Held Them in the tiny back garden of our English house in the midst of the most beautiful spring I've ever experienced. The novel, published in 1948, is about life in a fourteenth-century convent in Norfolk—about politics, plagues, and personalities as well as about the spiritual lives of the nuns. In a season in which I visited the ruins of the great medieval monasteries at Rievaulx and Whitby (pictured on the book cover), Warner's novel brought those places alive for me. Sylvia Townsend Warner is a marvelous writer. If you haven't read any of her novels, treat yourself and pick up a copy of Lolly Willowes, which is probably her most widely-available novel (and was the first-ever selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1926). Warner is a kind of fantasy writer for grown-ups (she was also the biographer of T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King). There's an element of fantasy and otherworldliness in much of her work, but the worlds she creates—her fictional fourteenth century, the imaginary tropical island of Mr. Fortune's Maggot, the fairy world in Kingdoms of Elfin—become thoroughly real to the reader.

Other books I loved in 2007 (not previously mentioned in this blog) were Elizabeth Kostova's smart blend of bibliophilia, travelogue, and vampires, The Historian; Marghanita Laski's satire, both biting and elegiac, of the post-war decay of the British class system, The Village; and Karen Lystra's almost novelistic study of Mark Twain's last years, Dangerous Intimacy.

TV. On the BBC, Planet Earth and Dr. Who. David Tennant's Tenth Doctor is brilliant, and his latest companion, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), is the hottest. One much-anticipated television event of 2007, the ITV "Jane Austen Season," failed to live up to the hype. Two of the new adaptations were mediocre (Persuasion and Northanger Abbey), and one was awful (Mansfield Park, starring Dr. Who's erstwhile companion, the woefully miscast Billy Piper). You can judge for yourself when Masterpiece Theater airs the three ITV efforts as part of "The Complete Jane Austen" in 2008.

Theater. Shakespeare's History Plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company. The experience of seeing all three parts of Henry VI in less than twenty-four hours was revelatory and amazing. One of the great theater experiences of my life. The stage became an entire world, and the history of that world unfolded before my eyes in all of its brutality, poetry, and splendor. At the same time, Shakespeare seemed to mature as a playwright before my eyes, until he became the master magician of the English language who produced the incomparable poetry of Richard II.

Ale. There was so much superb ale to be drunk in England, but the pint I remember with the most fondness was Cameron's Creamy, from Cameron's Brewery in Hartlepool, as drunk at the friendly Poacher's Barn pub in Osgodby, Yorkshire.

Blog Post. How could I resist including among my favorites a blog post about me?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

North Shore Ski Holiday

Sunrise over Lake Superior, seen from the window of our cabin at Solbakken Resort in Lutsen, Minnesota. Saturday, December 29, 2007.

Clara and I moved to Minnesota in August 1990, and this week we made our long-overdue first trip to the North Shore of Lake Superior. We had reservations for three nights in one of the cabins at Solbakken Resort, near Lutsen, Minnesota. We started out at 10:00 am on the day after Christmas and arrived at Solbakken seven hours later, after some nerve-wracking driving over slick roads and through blowing snow along MN Highway 61 from Duluth to Lutsen. At one point, we were stopped for over ten minutes while a head-on collision was cleared from the highway. But we finally made it, and it was worth the effort.

Clara and Simon with Lake Superior in the background. Thursday, December 27, 2007. (The sign says "Solbakken," and points back down to the resort.)

The Solbakken cabins are right on the shore, a few feet away from the ice-covered rocks and the huge swells of Lake Superior. The water was still open right up to the shore, and on the second morning, I spotted a bald eagle fishing off the rocks. We also saw dozens of deer in the woods above the cabin, where we went skiing on the well-groomed trails through Superior National Forest. Clara and I did classic skiing and the boys raced off ahead of us on their skate skis. We shared the largest cabin at the resort ("Jonas House") with our friends Vickie and Simon and their two boys, who are exactly the ages of our boys. We skied in the morning and afternoon, and in the evening we sat in front of the roaring fire and watched episodes on DVD of Dr. Who and Robin Hood, our two favorite BBC series from last year. We enjoyed ourselves so much that we booked the same cabin for the same three nights next year!

Me, about to turn around and ski through the beautiful "Cedar Cathedral" on Friday morning. Notice my extremely professional-looking ski outfit of old brown corduroys, fleece, jacket, cheap gloves, and silly earflap hat from Target.

Clara and Vicki outside our cabin, after our morning ski on Thursday.

The only downsides to the short holiday were: (a) the driving conditions on the day after Christmas, (b) the inevitable blister on my right heel, and (c) the icy driveway down to the cabin. Everything else was perfect, and the trip was a perfect belated introduction to the North Shore.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Scenes of Christmas: Food

Driving conditions were poor on Christmas Day as we drove up to Roseville to spend the afternoon and evening with Clara's brother's family. But, of course, it was all worth it for the splendid company and delicious food. Here are a couple of pictures of the beginning and the end of the feast: the leg of lamb roasting on a string in front of the fireplace, and the apple pie (which my wife Clara baked) and the Dundee cake (which my niece Clara baked). Dundee cake is a traditional Scottish Christmas cake, and a reminder of the sabbatical year Frank's family spent in Edinburgh in the mid-1990s.

We're now bracing ourselves for a snowy five-hour drive up to Lutsen to spend a couple of days skiing and hot tubbing at the Solbakken Nordic Resort. My next post, on Saturday or Sunday, should have photographs of frozen Lake Superior. But we really didn't need to go up north for snow this Christmas holiday; several inches have fallen in the storm that started just as we were leaving for Roseville at 2:00 pm on Christmas Day.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Scenes of Christmas: Music Making

One of the Christmas traditions in Clara's family is the visit from Santa Claus on Christmas morning. When she was a little girl, Santa—in his red suit and long white beard—looked a little bit like her grandfather. In recent years, her brother Frank has always been upstairs napping, tired out from the preparations for Christmas day, when Santa arrives. Santa always prances about, speaking in a high-pitched elf voice, and distributes gifts to children (and adults) who perform for him. Clara, as a child, played her violin for him. Frank's children—all of them conservatory-caliber musicians—usually deliver a brilliant chamber music performance on violin, cello and bass (but the cellist is in Turkey this Christmas). Now, however, our own children are advancing on their instruments and producing some real Santa-worthy performances on trombone and oboe. Here are Will and Clara, rehearsing the first movement of Bach's concerto in C-minor for violin and oboe (the score was a Christmas gift to Will). This is the first time that Clara's had her violin out of its case in at least two years. Maybe they'll have this ready in time for Santa's visit next Christmas!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy La La Day

Dear Readers,

The new leader of the Liberal Democrats, the furthest left of England's three major political parties, recently told the BBC that he is an atheist. Nick Clegg told the BBC: "
I myself am not an active believer, but the last thing I would do when talking or thinking about religion is approach it with a closed heart or a closed mind." (Clegg also brilliantly signed on Brian Eno as one of his political advisors.) To help Mr. Clegg celebrate the holiday season, the BBC's Sunday morning programme, "Broadcasting House," ran a series of "atheist carols," such as:

La rest ye, merry gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay!
Remember la la la la la
Was born on la la day!

It was also reported recently in the British press that Britain's most prominent and vocal atheist, Richard Dawkins, enjoys Christmas carols and considers himself "a cultural Christian."

Meanwhile, NPR ran a story about the atheist chaplain at Harvard, who helps atheist students cope with the Christian holiday. The Harvard students, being American college students, were incredibly earnest about making it through the holidays without violating the tenets of their atheism. But at least one student hadn't completely lost his sense of humor at Harvard. Talking about the problem of whether an atheist can listen to Christmas music, he said: "You can listen to the song 'My Sharona' without believing in the existence of Sharona.'"

To help get yourself into the proper holiday spirit, relax, lighten up, and listen to Dar Williams singing "The Christians and the Pagans."

Merry Christmas! Blessed be! May Sharona make your motor run!
Whether you are celebrating Christmas, the winter solstice, or simply La La Day, may your holiday be joyful, hopeful, and full of light!


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Day at the Museums: O'Keeffe and Kahlo

This morning, in the fog and hoar frost, our friends Jeff and Mary drove us up to Minneapolis to see exhibitions of work by two of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) and Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). Our first stop was the Minneapolis Institute of Art, for the exhibit Georgia O'Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction. O'Keeffe is best known for her paintings of flowers and animal skulls, but this exhibition focused specifically on her use of abstract, or nearly abstract, curvilinear shapes. For me, the highlight was a series of canvases from her Pelvis Series, painting in the 1940s, in which the blue sky is seen through the openings in bleached white pelvic bones. It's impossible to gain a full appreciation of O'Keeffe's paintings from photographic reproductions (which are popular and widely available). In the Pelvis Series paintings, brush strokes create subtle light effects and textures that give the paintings an almost holographic quality. The colors and textures change subtly depending on the angle from which the painting is viewed. The last painting in the series gave me a feeling of vertigo. The painting represents the blue sky seen through the hole in a pelvic bone, but my eyes insisted as seeing it also as a blue egg on a white background. My eyes shifted dizzily between these two perspectives.

After spending some quality time with O'Keeffe, and gaining a much deeper appreciation of her work through the MIA's fine exhibition, we wandered around looking at some old favorites in the collection. For me, this meant visiting an old crush, Camille Corot's "Springtime of Life" (1871), wistfully painted when the artist was seventy-five.

After lunch at D'Amico's in the MIA, we headed over to the Walker Art Center for the large Frida Kahlo exhibition. After the cool abstractions of O'Keeffe, Kahlo's paintings seemed especially intense and painful. O'Keefe's white pelvic bones framing the blue desert sky are intense, but they draw the viewer into depths far outside of himself (or herself), into the sky, nature, pure color and abstract form. But Frida Kahlo was Frida Kahlo's favorite subject. The majority of the paintings in the exhibition were self portraits. Her intense self-examination is very different from O'Keeffe's expansive outward gaze. Pelvises appear in Kahlo's art, too, but they are part of a personal iconography of pain. Because her pelvis was too narrow, she was unable to bear children successfully, and in one shocking and powerful painting actually portrays herself having a miscarriage. She never seemed able to escape herself and her own pain—both her physical pain and the pain of Diego Rivera's infidelity. For Kahlo, a painting of a pelvis was a personal icon of pain and death; for O'Keeffe it was bleached of all personal significance and became purely abstract form.

We finished off our visit to the Walker with a quick tour of some of the other galleries, in one of which a young man caught our attention and did what Clara described as "a silly dance." He then explained that the silly dance was actually a work of art on loan from a museum in Berlin, and that the artist himself had shown him how to do the silly dance.

The O'Keeffe exhibition at the MIA runs through January 6; the Kahlo exhibition runs at the Walker through January 20, after which it moves to Philadelphia (February 20-May 18) and San Francisco (June 14-September 28).

Monday, December 17, 2007

Loo of the Year

When I'm traveling, there's nothing more important to me than being able to locate a toilet. In my long history of needing a toilet, I have, with an unerring sense for such things, found public facilities in places as far afield as Cambridge (Massachusetts), Orange and Aigues-Mortes (France), Salzburg (Austria), and Henley-in-Arden (England). In England, most towns have "public conveniences" housed in their own separate building, and in most of the places we visited during our year in England I can tell you where to find a toilet. Kenilworth? At the top of the Warwick Road, across from the MacDonald DeMontfort Hotel. Stratford-upon-Avon? Across from Bancroft Gardens, on Waterside between Bridge and Sheep Streets. Tewkesbury? Next to the car park near Tewkesbury Abbey. And two of the restrooms I visited during my tour of the great public toilets of England—the one in the square outside of Lincoln Castle and the one in the Wallace Collection in London—have recently been named winners of the coveted Loo of the Year Award. The 2007 winners were announced on December 5. The 3-star Lincoln Castle Square loo, which I utilized on two separate visits to Lincoln, is a perennial winner in the full-time attended public toilet category.

Why is this man looking so smug? He's just been to one of London's five-star public toilets!

In London, the toilets in the more posh areas (e.g., the shopping district near Victoria Station) are pay toilets, although free toilets can be found in Hyde Park, Marylebone Station, and other places around town (if, like me, you have that sixth sense for locating toilets). But if you want an exceptional free toilet experience on your trip to London, check out the 5-star public loo at The Wallace Collection (click for a floor plan highlighting the location of the toilets) on Manchester Square. While you're there, you may also want to spend some time looking at the remarkable collection of medieval armor and art, including Frans Hals' famous Laughing Cavalier (pictured here) and Fragonnard's Girl on a Swing.

Note: Northfield is in the process of putting up "wayfinding signs" that will help direct visitors to the public conveniences available at the Northfield Public Library and the Northfield Historical Society.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Christmas Music

When I was little, Christmas with Conniff, the 1959 LP by the Ray Conniff Singers, was the sound of Christmas. Each year, all through the late Sixties and early Seventies, we put it on the stereo while we were decorating the tree. I haven't heard it in years, but I'm sure that the first sprightly strains of "Jingle Bells" would put me right back in the living room of that house in Jacksonville, New York, where I lived through second grade—the prime Christmas years. Christmas with Conniff is definitely the best Christmas CD I don't currently own.

In my current Christmas music collection, the retro element is represented by two very fine CDs: Michael Bublé's EP from a few years back, Let It Snow, and my eccentric favorite, The Jethro Tull Christmas Album. It's a compilation of freshly recorded Christmas tracks and outtakes from past Tull albums, and the flavor in general is reminiscent of Tull at the high point of their four decade career–the late-Seventies era of Minstrel in the Gallery, Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses. Some of the tracks are jazzed-up acoustic versions of popular carols; others, like "Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow," sound like vintage Tull originals. Undead Ian Anderson still fronts the band with his flute and his unmistakable voice, and nine-hundred year old Martin Barre still shows off impressive chops on the guitars.

My most recent addition to the Christmas CD collection is A Cotswold Christmas, by the Abbey School Choir, Tewkesbury. I picked it up at the abbey shop on my first visit to my favorite English parish church, Tewkesbury Abbey. It's a very English set of Christmas music, beginning with the obligatory "Once in Royal David's City" in the David Willcocks arrangement. But the best Christmas CD in my current collection is An American Christmas, a 1993 release on Erato by the Boston Camerata under the direction of Joel Cohen. The disc features sacred harp tunes, folk hymns like "Wayfaring Stranger," early American hymns by the likes of William Billings, and later nineteenth-century revival hymns like "Jesus the Light of the World." While the Ray Conniff Singers perfectly capture the perky sound of Christmas in the late Fifties and Sixties, this CD captures the sound of a much older and more austere America—it's beautiful, haunting, and surprising.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


At least 90% of the novels I read are by women—usually British women who wrote in the early to middle twentieth century, like Elizabeth Taylor, Rose Macaulay, Margery Sharp, and Sylvia Townsend Warner. I also love the late Carol Shields, the American-born Canadian novelist. Every now and then I'll read a novel by a contemporary American woman novelist that I really like—Nicole Krauss's stunning The History of Love comes instantly to mind—but that's rare. There are many fine women novelists in America—big names like Minneapolis-born Anne Tyler, Anna Quindlen, Alice Hoffman, Jane Hamilton—but for some reason most of their novels have never really grabbed me. The exception is Ann Patchett. I loved Bel Canto, I adored The Magician's Assistant, and I was head-over-heels for her latest novel, Run.

The novel centers around the family of Bernard Doyle, a former mayor of Boston, who with his late wife adopted two African-American sons, named Tip and Teddy. He wants his sons to become politicians, but Teddy wants to be a priest and Tip wants to study fish. Then one snowy night, after a Jesse Jackson speech at Harvard, an accident changes the Doyle family's lives forever. Yes, it sounds like it could be a bit contrived and heavy on message—and there is an element of that—but Patchett writes so beautifully and has such a light touch that I, for one, was entirely swept away by the story. She comes so close to magical realism—there's a hint of miracle cures performed by a nonagenarian priest—but in the end the real miracles are in human relationships, in people opening up to one another. Like so many novels by women, Run is about family—about the many different ways of belonging to other people. And it's about how standing back and being amazed by someone else can help to bring your own life into focus. Bel Canto was a huge bestseller a few years ago, but in many ways I like Run more, if only because Patchett seemed to have a surer sense of how to end it—with a lovely image of inclusiveness, of how turning toward the outsider can strengthen us on the inside and, despite our differences, bring us together.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


It's snowing heavily in Northfield at the moment. After lunch, Clara and I waxed up our skis, which have been languishing unused in the basement for nearly two years, and drove over to the Lower Arboretum for a lovely hour-long ski. We skied along the river, up through the oak savanna, and across the open prairie (where Clara likes to imagine she's Anne Bancroft skiing across Antarctica). Nothing could be lovelier than the Arb in winter. The snow blotted out everything but the grasses and the trees, and we seemed to be alone in a wilderness. After the ski, we came home to another winter treat that I missed last year in England—pickled herring on Triscuits. I also got out the double Gloucester and stilton and poured a warming glass of port. Unfortunately, Peter called to say that he had missed the bus—don't ask me how—and needed to be picked up at the middle school. Soon I was outside again, pushing the car—with Clara at the wheel—out of a snowbank at the foot of the driveway. Winter is here and, despite the occasional hassles, I couldn't be happier.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Yogurt Couvade

Between 1992 and 1999, I was a full-time stay-at-home father and part-time writer. In honor of my fellow blogger Shannon, who has also made the difficult but rewarding choice to stay home with her children and write during nap times, here is a link to my essay "Yogurt Couvade," which appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of the wonderful magazine Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers. Shannon, I hope December goes more smoothly for you than November did, and that you enjoy the essay, and that before too long we can have you and Christopher over for dinner and finally meet in person!

Saturday, December 1, 2007

God Adopts a Highway

God will be taking over highway clean-up from this group.

Those of us who live off exits of Interstate 35 may not be aware that dreams and prophecies have led a group of Christians to identify I-35 as the "Highway of Holiness" spoken of in Isaiah 35:8 (Isaiah 35=I-35): "And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it." In an effort to nudge along the fulfillment of that Biblical prophecy, a group called Light the Highway is staging "purity sieges" along I-35 to clear out the strip clubs and gay bars and other dens of iniquity that cluster around its exits. These folks see various disasters that have occurred along the route of the highway—from the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City to the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis—as clear signs of God's displeasure with the vice that litters His Highway. The effort has the backing of Pat Robertson, who featured a story about it on his 700 Club.

Clara informs me that it's proper blogger etiquette to acknowledge her for bringing this to my attention with the formula: "Hat tip to Clara for the link to Andrew Sullivan."

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Publication Alert: "To the Daughter I Never Had"

The Winter 2007 issue of Rattle: Poetry for the 21st Century is out now, and includes my poem "To the Daughter I Never Had." The poem was inspired by my friend and former student Peytie, and by Julia B. and all the little red-headed girls in Northfield. When I read it in March 2006 at the Jon Hassler Theater in Plainview, Minnesota, Emilio DeGrazia (former Minnesota Book Award winner and co-editor of 33 Minnesota Poets), said he thought it was my best poem. Rattle, based in Studio City, California, features over 200 pages of poetry and prose, including a special "Tribute to Nurses," with poems and essays by and about nurses. Poems published in Rattle have also been featured on Poetry Daily. Rattle puts poetry from back issues online beginning about six months after print publication; I'll let you know when my poem goes online. If you want to order your own print copy, send a check for $10.00 payable to:

12411 Ventura Blvd.
Studio City, CA 91604

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

LibraryThing Early Reviewer

As you can see at the far left, I've added a new badge of honor to my blog: I've been chosen as a "Library Thing Early Reviewer." Several publishers provide advance reading copies (ARCs) to LibraryThing to distribute to selected LibraryThing members. As this article says, publishers are banking on ordinary bloggers, like yours truly, to help create an online buzz for their new releases. A free book for me, free publicity for the publisher. In my case, the publisher is St. Martin's Press, and the book is Becky, the new novel (due out in January) by Florida novelist Lenore Hart. It's the story of Mark Twain's Becky Thatcher, Tom Sawyer's girlfriend, looking back from the perspective of old age on a long and full life—and filling in the rest of the story of her friendship with Tom and Huck. I loved Geraldine Brooks' March, which does a similar thing with Mr. March, the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, so I was willing to give this latest literary re-imagining a try. I'm looking forward to receiving the book and sitting down to read. When I'm done, a review will be posted here.

Preorder Becky from River City Books in Northfield.
Preorder Becky from

Monday, November 26, 2007

Reading Journal: "Miss A. and Miss M."

Since an essay appeared about her in the September 2007 Atlantic Monthly, thoughtful people have been flocking to read Elizabeth Taylor’s short story “Miss A and Miss M,” which Benjamin Schwartz in the Atlantic calls her “most technically accomplished story.” The story is vintage Elizabeth Taylor: quiet, understated, full of literary allusions, deriving its drama from the unspoken currents that flow between people. There is a depth of feeling beneath its light, shimmering surface. The story is set in the 1920s at a middle-class holiday guest-house in the still-unspoiled English countryside, narrated by a middle-aged woman looking back at her childhood—and a childhood landscape now bisected and defaced by a motorway. “In that place,” the narrator says, “we had put down roots.” Near the guest-house, she remembers, was a delightful spot, full of scents and butterflies, called the Cherry Orchard—and of course, knowing Elizabeth Taylor, we are meant to think of Chekov. Elizabeth Taylor is interested in ordinary life, and in how that life is colored by our reading and our illusions. (One of my favorite Taylor characters, the little boy Oliver in At Mrs. Lippincote’s, imagines that he is young Jane Eyre.) We attempt, not always successfully, to match up our ordinary life with our often romantic illusions about how things and people ought to be. Miss A is flamboyant and vain and, to the narrator, intensely romantic; Miss M is sensible and down-to-earth and rather dull. One has the sense that Miss M is a much more suitable influence on the narrator than Miss A is; Miss M offers grounding, Miss A only encourages the narrator’s flightiness. Miss M tries to teach the narrator logic and grammar, but the narrator prefers to rely on “instinct and intuition and inspiration.” In “Miss A. and Miss M.,” the narrator learns that the grammar can’t survive without the inspiration.

Favorite sentence: “Looking back, I see that my mother was far more attractive, lovable, than any of the ladies I describe; but there it was—she was my mother.”

The story, published in the collection The Devastating Boys and Other Stories (Virago Modern Classics 1984), has been reviewed recently on several book blogs, including A Curious Singularity, The Book Mine Set, and A Work in Progress. I blogged on Elizabeth Taylor last year on my Sabbatical blog.

Writers' Strike

Must-Read: On the Whedonesque blog, Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, talks about the ongoing Hollywood writers' strike.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

How to Tie a Half-Windsor Knot

Note to self: For future reference, this is how you tie a half-Windsor knot in your tie (click to enbiggen):

For years, I've been tying a shabby and lopsided four-in-hand knot in my tie. Why did I never learn to tie my tie properly? Perhaps because I seldom wear a tie. I can tie a square knot and a bowline and a sheet bend and, for tying the boat to the dock, a clove hitch—but I never mastered the basic half-Windsor around my neck. So last night, as I was dressing to go to the Minnesota Orchestra, I used my internet searching skills to rectify the situation. Google: "how to tie a tie." Welcome to all of my fellow sartorially-challenged people who have come to this blog after running a similar search.

The concert was preceded by an elegant dinner at Manhattans on LaSalle (next to the State Theater box office). I had pan-seared sea scallops. Scallops are one of those things that I love so much that I restrain myself from having them too often. Certain things need to be reserved for special occasions, or their specialness is diminished. For me, that list includes scallops and Brahms' Clarinet Quintet. There was nothing like that on the orchestra program last night, but there were some favorites: the Bach double violin concerto, the Schumann Conzertstuck for four horns, and the Mendelssohn Fourth Symphony ("Italian"), all conducted by Gilbert Varga, with soloists from the orchestra. Clara played the Bach double when she was in high school, and I—well, I played the French horn, but never like the four Minnesota Orchestra horn players played last night.

I've been going to classical music concerts since I was in my single digits. I was conditioned at a young age to sit very still and not make a sound. The same cannot be said of most people who attend the Minnesota Orchestra. The women behind me seemed to be zipping and unzipping their purses through the entire concert, occasionally blurting out a comment in something more than a whisper. After each item on the program, there was a patchy standing ovation. It's not as bad as the Guthrie Theater, where I don't think I've ever attended a performance that wasn't given a standing ovation. Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling could stand on stage and cough (he wouldn't be the only one), and he would receive a standing o. The Guthrie also has more than its share of restless, blurting audience members. My favorite example of this was when an old man behind me, during an especially tense moment of silence in Sophocles' Oedipus the King, blurted out: "I don't like where this is going."

Okay, I'm a snob. I like a quiet audience. And I like standing ovations to be like scallops—reserved for special occasions.

Special Feature. One of the special treats of living in England for a year was being able to listen to I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue on BBC Radio 4. You can treat yourself by using the BBC's excellent Listen Again feature, available by following the link.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Reading Journal: "Seasoned Timber"

“...there are all kinds of ways to love...”
—Dorothy Canfield, Seasoned Timber

Dorothy Canfield’s Seasoned Timber was published in 1939, as Fascism was marching across Europe, drawing one nation after another into conflict with Hitler and the Third Reich. Like most of Canfield’s novels, Seasoned Timber is set in a small town in Vermont, and shaped by the author’s engagement with the ideals of progressive education. Dorothy Canfield (1879-1958) was the daughter of the second president of Ohio State University, held a Ph.D. in romance languages from Columbia, and was responsible for introducing the Montessori method of elementary education to the United States. Her most famous book, the children’s novel Understood Betsy (1917), can be read as a dramatization of Canfield’s ideas about progressive education. Seasoned Timber centers on the character of Timothy Coulton Hulme, the principal of a small and struggling village academy in the mountains of Vermont. Through Hulme (Hulme, significantly, was the middle name of Canfield’s father), Canfield again works out her ideas about education, in a manner that some readers may find slow and didactic, but which I found warm and refreshing.

T.C. Hulme, a widower, has for twenty years been the principal of Clifford Academy, living in the stone-built principal’s house with his eccentric Aunt Lavinia. The first half of the novel moves slowly and lyrically as T.C. finds himself falling in love with young Susan Barney, a new third grade teacher at the school. Meanwhile, he has to contend with various school crises—a tight budget, frozen pipes in the Domestic Science classroom, a bigoted trustee—while attempting to come to terms with middle age. But the biggest crisis comes when the bigoted trustee dies and leaves a million dollars to the Academy—on the condition that Jews be excluded. This sets up a conflict between T.C.’s nineteenth-century liberal ideals and the blunt force of fascism backed by the all-mighty dollar. It’s a novel about ideals—about whether they can be lived up to, about whether they can stand up against the stark realism of money and power, about how we idealize other people, and about the idealism of democratic education. In its introverted, old-fashioned, slow-moving way, it’s powerful and moving, perhaps because it’s so deeply seasoned with Canfield’s own tough idealism, her commitment to education, and her love of Vermont.

Canfield seems to have begun writing Seasoned Timber shortly after the publication of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935), his satire of American fascism, also set in Vermont. Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street was the bestselling novel of the year 1921; Canfield’s The Brimming Cup was second on the bestseller list for that year (the eventual winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, was fourth on the list, after a Zane Grey western). Canfield lived a more stable and settled life than Lewis, and had a more tolerant and optimistic view of small-town life, but they shared a concern over the danger of fascism and an eye for the gap between American values and American actions. Their fiction often explores that gap between exalted ideals and their imperfect working-out in ordinary life.

One of the important questions that Seasoned Timber asks is how we can have “oneness” in a pluralistic society. In 1939, the Nazis were attempting to create oneness through a genocidal homogenization of their society and culture; oneness, they believed, could only be achieved through racial purity. Canfield, of course, saw a different way: through the American ideals of liberty and justice for all; through a progressive, democratic education for every child; through learning cooperation rather than competition; through the often complicated and conflict-ridden experience of living in a community. Canfield loves the slow-moving, personal democracy of the Vermont town meeting. It’s slow, but speed is the dubious virtue of dictators like Hitler and Mussolini, not of a democratic system that takes time to hear the voices of all its citizens. One of T.C.’s favorite hobby horses in the cooperative movement—and I think he, and Canfield, would have been pleased with modern Vermont’s embrace of co-ops and the slow food movement. And with locavorism, too, since T.C. makes sure that the Academy's Domestic Science (home economics) program stresses making the most of the materials available, especially locally-grown ingredients. Things move so slowly in Vermont, Canfield says, that perhaps all this new-fangled capitalism will pass before Vermont catches up with it, and the old-fashioned values of cooperation and community will come around again. Vermont is retro and cutting edge.

For Canfield, liberalism, inclusiveness, sense of place, cooperation, and neighborliness—both cussed and caring—are the old-fashioned American values. Somehow, conservatism has become associated with the interests of big business and the unsustainable expansion of the economy. It’s become about grabbing what you can. It’s about Haliburton, not hallowed ideals. Dorothy Canfield’s conservatism is the conservatism of the Gettysburg Address, with its ideal of one nation for all—not one for the wealthy and powerful, and another for everyone else. She was a true progressive—someone who believed in making steady progress toward achieving the goals of freedom and community and equality for all that were America’s from the beginning.

I read Seasoned Timber in a 1939 first edition, published by Harcourt, Brace, and Company, that I picked up at Monkey See, Monkey Read. It’s also available in a paperback edition published by University of New England Press. Dorothy Canfield also wrote one of my favorite novels of all time, The Home-Maker, which is available is a fine paperback edition published by London’s Persephone Books.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Poem for November 22

Postcard to Crawford, Texas,
from the Les Cheneaux Islands, Michigan

Surrounded by water,
we don’t think much about the desert
or how to make one.

The sunsets and the stars
humble us with their presence—
because we know these are God banners,
and not the flags we raise with our own hands.

We live with the bats
and the spiders, and cannot hate
what is so much a part of the place
and our own history.

We don’t do much clearing,
because sometimes the world works
by letting things grow

with a simple love of where we are:

surrounded by Huron’s waters,
the cedar forest, and each other.

Wish you were here.

© 2006 by Rob Hardy. Originally published in the Water-Stone Review, vol. 9 (Fall 2006).

"When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment."

John F. Kennedy, Address at Amherst College, October 26, 1963. Today is the 44th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


It's the day before Thanksgiving. Yesterday afternoon I stood in line outside Just Food Co-op to pick up my fresh Callister Farm organic turkey. Today, the turkey will go into brine (water, kosher salt, honey and fresh thyme) to soak overnight. Brining a turkey is the best way I've found to keep the breast meat from drying out, and it produces the best gravy. I'll also make the mulled cranberry sauce today, and spend some time cleaning the house. We're having eleven for dinner tomorrow: the four of us, Clara's brother and his family from Roseville (including their Turkish exchange student), Clara's brother's brother-in-law from Minneapolis, and a Carleton student whose travel arrangements left her stranded in Northfield for the holiday. My niece and my son Peter are vegetarians, so we'll have a leek tart as a meatless alternative. There will also be two dogs, ours and Clara's brother's, and fires in both woodstoves. I'm hoping that, in the midst of all the preparations tomorrow, we can fit in a walk out to the Iron Bridge.

What am I thankful for this year? Family and friends, of course, and the place where I live. I'm thankful for books and music and art. I'm thankful for the year we spent in England. I'm thankful for people who leave comments on my blog. I'm thankful, after the past seven years, for the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Last night, I attended the first meeting for the 2007-2008 school year of the Northfield Public Schools District Educational Program Advisory Council (DEPAC), a state-mandated body which sets broad annual goals for the school district in three areas: curriculum, assessment, and student services. Since the fall of 2004 (with a sabbatical last school year), I've been serving on the assessment sub-committee of DEPAC, chaired by Roger Jenni. In this era of NCLB, I thought it was important at least to understand how the local school district approaches testing and assessment, and to add my anti-testing voice to the conversation whenever possible.

It's difficult to find people who actually work with real students in real schools who are pleased with NCLB and its current emphasis on high-stakes testing. My subcommittee includes the new middle school principal, two teachers, and a school board member, as well as two parents, and we all agree that children are tested too much these days, and often for the wrong reasons.

Let's say that a fourth grade teacher starts the year with a class of students who are reading at a first grade level. She's been given these students because she's a fantastic teacher who can motivate these students and inspire them with a love of reading. Let's say that by the end of the year those students are reading at a third grade level—they haven't quite caught up, but they've improved by two grade levels in a single year, and, more importantly, they've caught the spark of learning. Under NCLB, that teacher is still considered underperforming because her class is not reading at grade level. It could be that, kindled by their fourth grade teacher's spark, those same students improve to the seventh grade reading level in fifth grade. NCLB doesn't recognize or incentivize* that either. Performance at grade level is the only thing that NCLB recognizes.

Northfield, like many school districts, would like to move to assessments that measure the growth of individual students. For several years, Northfield has been using the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests, which do just that—these computer-based tests adapt their questions to the individual student, measuring his progress in meeting various curriculum standards. Since the tests are administered annually, they also track the student's growth from year to year. Teachers can use the data to determine what "skill sets" an individual student needs to work on: what are his areas of weakness and strength? The data is quite detailed. Ideally, then, the assessment data can be used to differentiate instruction for individual students.

As tests go, the MAP isn't entirely evil. The company that produces the tests, NWEA, is lobbying to change NCLB to allow more flexibility to states to use these adaptive tests that measure student growth. But one major downside is that the test is computer-based, which means that computer labs are booked from March to May so that the tests can be administered. During that time, computers aren't readily available for instructional use. And in the end, quality instruction by committed teachers is more important than even the best-intentioned tests, isn't it? I would rather have another human being assessing my son's ability, enthusiasm, creativity, and character—assessing him as a whole person—than have a computer spitting out his percentile.

No one who actually spends time in a classroom likes the trend toward increased testing, or the higher stakes involved. Polls show that education is an important campaign issue, but the candidates seem unwilling to take on NCLB, perhaps because that would be seen as opposing "accountability" and "standards." The problem, as with most campaign issues, is that the public at large doesn't understand the real, complex issues, and responds instinctively to buzzwords like "accountability." Accountability? I don't want my child's education in the hands of an accountant. I want my child to be part of a community that learns and explores and creates and grows together. It's harder to build that kind of a community than it is to sit children down in front of a computer and convert them into graphs.

Addendum: A new National Endowment for the Arts study, To Read or Not to Read, indicates that reading skills in the U.S. have sharply deteriorated in the decade between 1992 and 2003. In 2003, only 31% of adults were considered proficient in reading prose (down from 40% in 1992); the U.S. ranks 15th among industrialized nations in adult reading proficiency (Finland and Canada are the top two).

At last night's meeting, we all had a good laugh over a quotation from a University of Iowa seminar on assessment last summer: "Weighing a pig doesn't make it any heavier." It's true: testing students on reading doesn't make them better readers. All of this government-mandated testing is not getting students to read. Students read, I think, when they're part of a culture of reading—when they're surrounded by adults who read and who show them the pleasure of books. (A cold climate, as in Canada and Finland, may also help; perhaps global warming is responsible for the decline in reading, too!)

I think older adolescent boys have always read less, so that part of the study's findings doesn't disturb me too much. I certainly didn't read much at that age, but now I read voraciously. But it is troubling that, overall, reading is on the decline, and that girls and women read much more than boys and men.

*see Comments section.

Update. Sen. Barack Obama has proposed an $18 million increase in education spending. He praises the goals of NCLB (ostensibly, to raise educational standards and improve student achievement), but criticizes the implementation of the law as an unfunded mandate. If Obama plans to use the $18 million to train and employ more teachers and reduce class sizes, and not to implement more testing and test preparation, then I'm all for it. Link to the LA Times story.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Bonus Post: Dessert

On Friday night, I read a few poems at a Northfield Arts Guild reading at Tiny's. Riki Kölbl Nelson also read some selections from her bilingual collection of poems in German and English, Grenzen/Borders. Before she read, Riki talked a little about her childhood near the beautiful Austrian city of Salzburg, which our family had the pleasure of visiting last October. For tonight's dessert, Clara tried her hand at Salzburger nockerl, the light dessert soufflé that we first tasted at the Stiftskeller St. Peter in Salzburg. A stiftskeller is the cellar of the monastery, or Stift; in this case, the monastery of St. Peter. The monastery's wine cellar opened to the public in 809, making it the oldest restaurant in western Europe. Salzburger Nockerl is one of the city's signature foods (along with Mozartkugel and Stiegl beer). There are a number of recipes available on the internet; the one Clara used, linked above, is from Gourmet magazine, via* As it was at the Stiftskeller St. Peter, our Salzburger nockerl was served with a drizzle of warm raspberry syrup.

*The photograph accompanying the recipe is not a good example of what a Salzburger nockerl should look like; the eggs should stand up in peaks, like the mountains around Salzburg.

Iron Bridge

Clara enjoying a pint of Old Speckled Hen on the patio of the Saxon Mill, on the River Avon in Guy's Cliff, just outside Warwick.

Since I can no longer take my daily walk around Kenilworth Castle, my favorite walk is now, by default, the walk through the Lower Arboretum to Canada Avenue. There's no castle dominating the landscape, but there is beautiful prairie, oak savanna and oak woods, pine plantations, an oxbow pond, and the Cannon River. From certain vantage points, the view of Carleton's Skinner Chapel is almost English—and today's cold drizzle added to that English feeling. It really is a lovely walk. The only thing missing is a pub at the far end of the walk. I like to imagine a riverside pub, like the Saxon Mill on the Avon outside of Warwick, called the Iron Bridge, named after the old bridge on Canada Avenue at the far northeast corner of the arboretum.

The Waterford Bridge ("the Iron Bridge") on Canada Ave.

The bridge, officially known as the Waterford Bridge, was built in 1908. After the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed this summer, the Waterford Bridge was identified as one of the most structurally-deficient bridges in the state, and is now scheduled for replacement, perhaps as early as next year. There is a possibility that the old 1908 iron bridge could be preserved for its historical value if Canada Avenue can be realigned. The bridge was built by the Hennepin Bridge Company, founded in 1900, using a metal truss design that was common at the time. The bridge should be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and could be converted to pedestrian or bicycle use (like this other Hennepin Bridge company bridge in Wisconsin). I hope an effort will be made to preserve this historic bridge. Now, about that pub...
The sign over the Iron Bridge on the south side of the Cannon River (click to enlarge)

The view from the bridge, looking southwest down the Cannon River (toward Northfield)

The "structurally-deficient" undercarriage of the bridge

After today's cold, wet walk, Clara and I returned home for hot chocolate and peppermint schnapps (in lieu of a pint in the non-existent Iron Bridge Pub), then I built fire in the woodstove and cooked up a pot of corn and potato chowder and some homemade rolls while listening to one of the greatest recordings of all time: the classic RCA Victor recording of Verdi's Aïda from the late 1950s, with Jussi Björling, Zinka Milanov, Leonard Warren, and Fedora Barbieri.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Pro and NeoCon

Updated twice (see below).

Yesterday, President Bush announced the winners of the 2007 National Medal of the Arts. One of the winners was the great contemporary American choral composer Morten Lauridsen. Hearing his great a capella choral piece "O Magnum Mysterium" sung at Christmas in Coventry Cathedral was one of the musical high points of my year in England. There are several good recordings of the piece. I recommend either the recording with Polyphony and Stephen Layton (a more expensive import which also includes Lauridsen's moving requiem, Lux Aeterna) or the recording with the Dale Warland Singers, Lux Aurumque, which also features choral masterpieces by Eric Whitacre, Herbert Howells, Dominick Argento, and others.

There is also a new crop of National Humanities Medal winners, including the classicist, military historian and neoconservative pundit Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson is notorious among classicists for his book, co-written with John Heath, titled Who Killed Homer?, which deplores the abandonment of classical education and the robust (to use a trendy word) values of the classical world. Among those classical values is the war of imperialism, ostensibly undertaken to promote the classical idea of democracy. Hanson has been an outspoken supporter of the war in Iraq and an ardent defender of Donald Rumsfeld. Laughably, he has identified himself as a Democrat, but has also described the Democratic party as "impotent" and "shrill." (This is also a man who worries that there are too many women in the field of classics, and too few real men.) Hanson argues that Western democracies, with values rooted in the classics, make unstoppable war machines, and that the might of Western democracy will ultimately prevail in the war on terror.

Hanson has also been a vocal critic of Jared Diamond, the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse. Of the former book, he wrote: "Diamond seemed to be terribly confused about the course of 2,500 years of Western history. Environment, far from being a precondition for Western success, was often almost irrelevant to it." Hanson prefers his own interpretation of the course of Western civilization, in which ideology is more important than environment, and the lessons of the classics are more important than the lessons of ecology.

Update. From Dan Froomkin at the Washington Post: "Among the recipients of today's 2007 National Humanities Medal: Stephen H. Balch, president of a conservative group that fights political correctness on college campuses ('for his leadership and advocacy upholding the noblest traditions of higher education'); National Review columnist and Hoover Institution senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson ('He has cultivated the fields of history and brought forth an abundant harvest of wisdom for our times'); and neoconservative Sovietologist Richard Pipes ('He has shaped and sharpened our understanding of the contest between liberty and tyranny')."

Update Two. More and snarkier commentary on Victor Davis Hanson, with links.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Homemade Bagels

Sometime in the mid-Nineties, after I had been baking bread for a couple of years, I decided to try my hand at making bagels. The results were particularly satisfying, and the process was not as difficult as I had anticipated. At the end of Carleton's 2006 winter term, I had my beginning Latin class over for brunch and made bagels (served with cream cheese and lox). One of my students lived in Carleton's Dacie Moses House, and last year introduced homemade bagels, following my recipe, as a regular Saturday night treat. My bagels have also been served in the Dean's Office at Carleton and auctioned off at the First U.C.C. silent auction. After several years, the old bagel shop in Northfield is still standing empty. If you enjoy baking, and miss fresh bagels as much as I do, why not try making bagels at home?

Step One: In a large bowl, mix 2 cups warm water, 1 T yeast, 3 heaping T sugar, and 1 heaping T salt. Gradually stir in 4 cups of unbleached white flour. When the dough is thick enough, turn it out onto a floured surface and knead, adding more flour as needed to made a firm, non-sticky dough. Knead for about ten minutes, until firm, glossy, and resilient. Place in a oiled bowl and cover with a tea towel to rise, about one hour (until doubled in size).

Step Two: Set a large pot of water to boil; add 2 T sugar to the boiling water. Meanwhile, divide the dough into a dozen balls of equal size. Slightly flatten each ball, then push your thumb through the middle to create the center hole. Work your fingers into the hole and roll the dough evenly against your palm to create a ring with a central hole about an inch-and-a-half in diameter. Let the bagels rest, covered, for ten minutes. Meanwhile, butter two baking sheets and sprinkle lightly with cornmeal, and preheat the oven to 425°F.

Step Three: In batches of three or four, drop the bagels into the boiling water and let boil for three to four minutes. Remove each batch and let the bagels dry slightly on dish towels. When all of the bagels have been boiled and dried, arrange them on the baking sheets, six to a sheet. Glaze each bagel with a little egg white and water mixture, and sprinkle with your favorite toppings (I usually make some poppy seed, sesame seed, onion, and kosher salt bagels; the ones in the photograph above, baked this morning, are sesame seed). Bake for 25-30 minutes. You may want to turn the bagels over carefully after 15 minutes or so to ensure even browning. Make sure they don't burn! When the bagels are done, remove them from the oven and set them on a rack to cool.

If you need a cookbook in front of you to follow the recipe, this recipe is adapted from "Les Bagels de Jo Goldenberg" in Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breads (1987), pages 556-558.

My next baking project is to learn how to make bialys. There's a recipe at the back of Mimi Sheraton's book The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World (2000), the story of the food writer's journey to Bialystok in Poland, and around the world, tracing the origins and diaspora of the bialy—a cousin of the bagel now available in its most famous form at Kossar's on Grand Street in New York.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Octopus

As a writer, I'm always thrilled when I find evidence that my writing is actually being read. This week, I experienced an even bigger thrill: someone who inspired one of my poems stopped by my blog and left a comment. The poem is called "Midlife Crisis While Watching a Nature Program," and appeared in the 2006 issue of the Red Cedar Review. It was inspired by the discovery of an octopus (Octopus marginatus) that disguises itself as a coconut and walks around on two of its tentacles. Don't believe that such a thing exists? Here's the video:

The octopus was discovered by a marine biologist at UC Berkeley named Crissy Huffard. There's an excellent, accessible article on Huffard and the "walktopus" here. Imagine my delight when Crissy herself left a comment on my blog!

Friday, November 9, 2007

The District Band Concert

The Northfield High School Concert Band, directed by Mary Williams. (My son Will is in the second row, playing the oboe.)

Last night was the annual district band concert. Six bands from seven schools in the district (counting the two charter schools) packed into the high school gym—from fifth graders who've only been blowing on their instruments for three months to tuxedoed seniors with invitations to All State. The concert concluded with a ragtime piece featuring a guest trombone quartet, followed by a spectacular piece for combined bands, featuring all thirty-five trombonists lined up in front for a solo ensemble.

The fifth grade band, under the direction of the superhuman Roger Jenni, seemed bigger than ever. It's wonderful to see ample evidence, including the district band concert and the high school musical, that music education is thriving in the Northfield Public Schools. I mentioned in an earlier post that engagement is the best test preparation. One of the unfortunate effects of NCLB has been that some schools across the country have been forced to cut music programs in order to divert resources to preparation for standardized tests. Parent groups have been forced to organize fund raisers to save school music programs. Remember the old slogan: "It'll be a great day when schools get all the money they need and the Air Force needs to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber"? In the world of NCLB, schools are getting money to give standardized tests—the educational equivalent of a bomber—and holding bake sales to support music education.

A study published in June in the Journal of Research in Music Education confirms my suspicion that, in fact, music students in general score higher on standardized tests. Music nurtures the human intellect; it builds and strengthens connections in the brain that aren't built through test cramming. In Northfield, Roger Jenni—the fifth grade band teacher—is also the coordinator of testing and assessment for the school district. He loves a good bar graph of median norms as much as he loves a good quick march played by a room full of ten-year olds. But maybe that's okay. Maybe the soul-numbing effects of NCLB can be mitigated if those in charge at the local level, like Mr. Jenni, understand that standardized tests are, at best, diagnostic tools, not ends in themselves, and that real intellect is nurtured in the band room.

In other news: My birthday yielded the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic book; season two of Dr. Who on DVD; the Library of America volume of Harte Crane's poetry and letters, signed by the editor; Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; a fifty-pound bag of organic Swany White Flour from Freeport, Minnesota; and a 27-ounce margarita.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Collecting Jar

To celebrate my birthday, how about buying a copy of my award-winning poetry chapbook, The Collecting Jar, from Grayson Books? It's only $7.50, and it's full of good poems! Copies can be purchased online using PayPal.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Conservative Issue

"There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country." Theodore Roosevelt (1912)

In response to my recent post on stewardship, I received a comment from Don, with a link to his blog "The Evangelical Ecologist: A Conservative Christian Environmental Blog." It's good to see that there are thoughtful evangelicals who realize that stewardship of God's creation is a Christian responsibility. It should be clear that the environment is not an issue of concern only to secular liberals. Our former Republican State Representative, Ray Cox, who has always been well-regarded for his legislative advocacy of environmental issues, has also made me aware of a national group called Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP), which recognizes the roots of the modern conservation movement in the work of Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican President. Nearly a century ago, Roosevelt said: "Conservation of our resources is the fundamental question before this nation, and our first and greatest task is to set our house in order and begin to live within our means." REP reminds its members that conservation is a conservative issue. While I share little common ground with evangelical Christians and conservative Republicans, I do share with them the common ground of this earth.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

What Was Nullification?

Q. "What was the nullification thing all about?" (Jim H., Northfield).

A. "Nullification" is the name for the theory that a state had the right to "nullify" (i.e., veto) within its own borders federal legislation that it found unconstitutional. The idea can be found in Thomas Jefferson's Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 (in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts), and found its classic expression in John C. Calhoun's 1831 "Fort Hill Address" (in response to the protective tariff of 1828).

We take it for granted that the Supreme Court has the final word on the constitutionality of legislation. But the principle of judicial review by the Supreme Court was not firmly established in the nineteenth century, and men like Jefferson and Calhoun propounded an alternative principle, which gave states the right to pass judgment on the constitutionality of federal laws. In the early 1830s, Southerners, like South Carolina's Calhoun, were angered by a high tariff which they believed favored the industrial North against the agricultural South. Calhoun was afraid that increased federal authority, as represented by the tariff, would eventually threaten the institution of slavery.

The 1820s and 1830s saw the beginning of the Whig Party, under the leadership of Kentucky's Henry Clay, which advocated expansion of federal authority to build national roads, and establish national institutions like a national university. Southern Democrats, in the tradition of Jefferson, opposed this expansion of federal power and advocated what has become known as "states' rights." Should the United States be a true Union, with power concentrated in a strong central government, or a looser confederation of sovereign states with the power to reject federal laws? In 1830, the jury was still out. In that year, a memorable debate took place in the Senate between Calhoun's point man, Senator Robert Hayne, and the great orator from New England, Senator Daniel Webster. The Webster-Hayne debate, ostensibly about the disposition of public lands in the West, laid on the table all of the issues that pitted states rights against the idea of Union. For Southern Democrats, it was a matter of liberty, of freedom from the shackles of federal authority. For Northern Whigs, it was a matter of union, of holding the United States together and consolidating its strength. Webster's great rhetorical coup was to link liberty and union, to unite the two ideas as the cornerstones of American democracy. In retrospect, Webster's side won—but it wasn't until the Civil War that Webster's idea of "liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable" became a sacred American creed.

The Essence of Education

Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, one of the topics of last night's dinner table conversation.

Last night, Will and I had an interesting conversation about the Jacksonian era, the protective tariff, John C. Calhoun, and the nullification crisis. Will's in Mr. Thornton's AP American History class at Northfield High School, and although his grade is not up to his usual standards, he comes home full of enthusiasm for the subject. If he can come home from school and make interesting conversation about the presidency of Andrew Jackson, I'm not concerned about his grade.

Early in his presidency, George W. Bush declared that "testing is the essence of education." In my experience, which includes teaching at all levels from kindergarten to graduate school, the essence of education is learning—and learning happens not through repeated testing, but through the dynamic relationship between an engaging teacher, an engaged student, and an interesting subject. But the signature piece of education legislation from the Bush Presidency, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), mandates repeated testing as the primary focus of an American public school education. In tenth grade, Will will be subjected to 365 minutes of testing—over six hours—between the PLAN, MCA and MAP tests. The six hours spent on the actual tests doesn't include the countless hours spent in test preparation.

In Britain, the state-supported educational system is entirely test-driven. Students Will's age (10th grade in Britain is called "Year 11") take a set of graduation tests called GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education). The tests are the culmination of three years of test preparation. After passing the GCSEs, students may, at age 16, leave school, or continue on to take more advanced "A-level" tests in preparation for university.

Both Will and Peter returned from England behind their American classmates in math. Instead of spending the year preparing for more advanced levels of mathematics, like calculus, they spent the year repeatedly drilling the basic skills covered on the graduation test. The English system was not geared toward creating mathematicians, it was geared toward producing a passing grade on the GCSE. There's a big difference. It's hard to generate a life-long passion for a complex subject when a single basic skills test is viewed as the goal line.

As a parent, I would rather have my son come home and engage me in a conversation about Jacksonian democracy than bring home a top score on a standardized test. Not surprisingly, though, the student who does the former usually also does the latter. Engagement is the best test preparation. But in the end, I want Will to think of standardized tests—including the 365 minutes of testing this year—as minor irritations in a lifetime of passion for learning.

Monday, November 5, 2007


It's stewardship season at church. For the past fifteen years or so, the church has been the biggest recipient of our charitable donations. As a former member of the congregation's Service and Social Responsibility Committee, I know that money given to the church is distributed to worthy causes locally (e.g., the Community Action Center) and across the nation (e.g., the Southern Poverty Law Center, continuing hurricane relief in New Orleans). But a larger portion of the money we've given to the church has gone to local programs and operations, including Sunday worship and the upkeep of the church building. In my current mood of disenchantment with organized religion, I'm finding it more difficult to justify giving large amounts of money to the church. This has left me pondering how to plan our charitable giving, if it is no longer concentrated on the church.

A belief in a transcendent God and a resurrected Christ has less meaning for me now than does a sense of the life-sustaining interrelationships of the natural world. For me, those interrelationships provide a firmer foundation for an ethical system—a greater sense of responsibility—than the teachings of Christianity. The idea that my actions and my patterns of consumption cause harm elsewhere in the world fills me with a sense of sinfulness. I would rather strive to have a right relationship with the planet than a right relationship with Jesus. My mother-in-law, who is a very religious woman, asked me if I was prepared to give up a belief in life after death. I've never had a strong faith in such a thing. Now, while I can, I would rather put my faith and my energy into this life, into the world that is, to make sure there is a future here for my children and my children's children.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul preaches to the Athenians and quotes the Greek philosopher Epimenides to say that God is the one in whom "we live and move and have our being." For me, that sounds like a description of the environment. The environment doesn't demand elaborate acts of worship or churches (each of which has its own carbon footprint). It demands stewardship. It demands a focus on interdependence, not transcendence.

I've begun to investigate environmental organizations which might become recipients of my "church money." The American Institute of Philanthropy has a good website which grades charities, primarily according to how much of donated money goes directly into programming. The highest rated environmental charity is The Conservation Fund, which receives an A+. 97¢ of every dollar goes directly to programming. What I've read about that programming seems impressive. The Conservation Fund believes in collaboration, not confrontation. It focuses on building partnerships, with businesses and other groups, to preserve land for conservation, to create sustainable solutions, and to sequester carbon. It's worth a closer look. Meanwhile, if you have suggestions for charitable giving to environmental organizations, please let me know.

My views on religion are evolving all the time. For previous statements of my views on religion, look here (from the February 2005 issue of the online journal Bad Subjects) and see my sermon, linked in the sticky post above.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .