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:

RATTLE
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 Amazon.com.

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

Thanksgiving

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

DEPAC

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 Epicurious.com.* 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

Stewardship

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.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

First Loaves

I have gone through long stretches in which I have baked all of our family's bread. It was a habit I got out of in England, where there was barely enough room in our kitchen to knead, and I was unable to buy flour in bulk. Now, after a long absence, I'm back. Above you can see the first two loaves out of the Hardy oven since summer 2006.* They're a simple recipe: flour (whole wheat and white), water, honey, buttermilk, yeast and salt. (My brother-in-law in Roseville, who's a better person than I am, makes all of his family's bread, using a sourdough starter he made himself with fermented grapes.) Will and Peter love my home-baked bread. Peter likes it best when it's still butter-meltingly warm from the oven, and often eats half a loaf before it cools.

My first published essay was on bread, fatherhood, and creation; if you want to try to find it, it appeared in North Dakota Quarterly in 1998 (volume 65, number 1). In the essay, Will is still a little boy, just being potty trained and learning to use blunt-tipped scissors:

He tells me that he wants to make a world. He cuts suns and moons and stars out of yellow construction paper. He cuts the Earth out of blue construction paper and sets the green continents in their places with great lava flows of Elmer's Glue. He tapes each star and planet to the end of a chopstick and stages cosmological puppet shows... Out in the yard, he pushes the chopsticks into the soft dirt, as if marking rows of seeds that later in the season will yield a bumper crop of planets and suns...

Now that "eccentric" (his grandfather's word) little boy is a sixteen-year old, sitting in his room playing Elliot Smith songs on his guitar, having pizza parties with his friends, taking AP American History, starting to think about going away to college.

Last night, I was astounded by the high school production of On the Town, not least because I remembered so many of the actors from my days as a substitute teacher. There were Charlie and Clara from Mrs. Betcher's fourth grade class at Bridgewater; there was Kelsey, looking exactly as if she had stepped out of a 1940's fashion plate, so different from the chubby baby I first met when she was three months old. There was Dylan, taller than I am, a boy I visited in the hospital on the day he was born. That seems like such a short time ago. How have they had time to become so talented and beautiful and big?

When we got home from the play, Peter showed up with his friends Parker, Tommy, and Danny for an impromptu sleepover. This morning, we found them sprawled on a solid carpet of Magic cards on the family room floor, surrounded by half-drunk cups of hot chocolate (and one cup mysteriously containing melted Dove bars mixed with coffee beans). Fortunately, they hadn't quite eaten all of the bread.

*Note the local Ernst Honey (Northfield); I also used Swany White Flour (Freeport, Minnesota) and local tap water from the Jordan sandstone beneath Northfield. I usually don't use a recipe when baking bread, but since I hadn't baked bread in a while, I adapted this recipe from Bernard Clayton's excellent bread book, also seen in the photograph.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

On the Town

If you haven't yet seen Northfield High School's production of Leonard Bernstein's musical On the Town, you have three more chances: next Friday (November 9) at 7:30 pm, and next Saturday (November 10) at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm. It is not to be missed!

New Life for an Old Burley

The old Burley, ready for action, in front of our stack of firewood.

After yesterday's self-indulgent and consumerist post, it's time to switch gears and talk about what I'm doing for the environment. In England, where I didn't drive and where our refrigerator was only slightly bigger than a shoebox ("You were lucky! We dreamed of a refrigerator as big as a shoebox!"), I got into the habit of making a daily trip to Sainsbury's for provisions—about a mile round-trip from our little house. Now that we're back home, with a refrigerator only slightly smaller than our entire English house, I've kept up the habit of daily grocery runs. EconoFoods is just around the block, and Just Food Coop is closer than Sainsbury's was in England. Sometimes, though, I need to get things that are too heavy to carry—things like 50 lb. sacks of Swany White Flour, or large bags of dog food for the idiot puppy. For this I use the Burley. This week I've used it to carry home flour from the coop, and to haul a load of cardboard to the recycling bin outside of Econofoods. I've also used it, in the past, to haul tons of library books back to the Carleton library. We got the Burley when the boys were little, but didn't use it much. The boys were too free-wheeling to be cooped up inside its small compartment. But the Burley is great for short-haul transport around town—and it allows me to burn calories instead of fossil fuels.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Month of Obsessives

I was born in November, the month of obsessives. November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in which participants attempt to write a 50,000 word draft of a novel in 30 days. That requires an average writing pace of nearly 1,700 words per day. On a good day, I'm capable of that much writing, but I tend to spend too much time polishing individual sentences, which is a NaNoWriMo no-no. And for writers who work on a smaller scale than the full-length novel, November is also National Blog Post Month, which requires participants to write and publish a blog post for each day of the month. So far I'm two-for-two—but don't expect me to keep up the pace. I prefer blogging without obligation. My personality is already too obsessive without outside encouragement. Meanwhile, my birthday is coming up at the end of next week. If you're looking for the perfect gift, here are a few suggestions:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Eight, Volume I: The Long Way Home. The television series ended several years ago after seven seasons, but in 2007 Joss Whedon cooked up a "canonical" eighth season—in comic book form. The first few "episodes" are now available in a single volume.

Dr. Who: The Complete Second Series. One of the televisual highlights of our year in England was the third series (i.e., season) of the new Dr. Who on the BBC. The second series, available on DVD, will fill in some of the back story, including the Doctor's relationship with his companion Rose (Billie Piper). The current Doctor, David Tennant, is a wonderful actor. A year from now, he'll be appearing as Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Patrick Stewart as Claudius. A geek's dream Hamlet: Dr. Who vs. Captain Picard.

Robin Hood: Season One. This was another favorite on the BBC, appealingly updated and acted. Maid Marion (Lucy Griffiths) is not only beautiful, she's strong and independent-minded and more than holds her own with the men. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Keith Allen) is one of the best TV villains since the Mayor in season three of Buffy. In fact, the entire show seems to owe more to Buffy than to Errol Flynn. Yes, the show is heavy on the political-correctness, drawing a clear parallel between the Sheriff's harsh measures and the erosion of civil liberties in an age of global terrorism—but it's just so much fun.

Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, Raising Sand. A CD pairing the voice of Alison Krauss with the voice of Led Zeppelin. How can it fail to be brilliant?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Phantom of the Sheldon

I'm not a big fan of Halloween. Perhaps it's because, during my days as a substitute teacher, I was often called to substitute either on Halloween itself, when the children were jittery and inattentive in anticipation of trick-or-treating, or on November 1, when the children were jittery and inattentive because of all the candy they had eaten the night before. I have particularly vivid memories of substituting for a fourth grade class at Bridgewater Elementary on Halloween and supervising the decorating of Halloween cookies—an activity for which the teacher had wisely called in sick.

Last night, Clara and I left Will and Peter in charge of doling out candy and took off for Red Wing with another couple to see the annual Halloween showing of the 1925 silent film The Phantom of the Opera at the Sheldon Theater. The Sheldon was built in 1904 with funds left to the city in the will of Red Wing merchant Theodore B. Sheldon. With the advent of silent films, the Renaissance-style theater became a popular movie house, and in 1988 was restored to its original gilded splendor, as can be seen in the photograph at left. The Sheldon was designed by Minneapolis architect Lowell Lamoreaux, who also designed the Red Wing City Hall and the YMCA Central Building in downtown Minneapolis.

Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera.

The Phantom of the Opera
was one of the most successful silent films of the 1920s. It starred Lon Chaney as Erik the Phantom and beautiful young Mary Philbin as Christine. There were some beautiful black-and-white images in the film—especially the play of shadows and light in the first half—but the plot seemed more like a vehicle to show off an impressive set (full of vaults, staircases, and trap doors) and Lon Chaney's groundbreaking make-up work (which he designed himself). Chaney's Phantom is a horror movie icon, although his psychotic posturing is less frightening than that of his distant relative, Dick Cheney. The authentic mood of the evening was greatly enhanced by organist Tom Erickson, who provided a 90-minute film score on the Sheldon's Kilgen theater organ. The showing of The Phantom of the Opera is an annual Halloween event at the Sheldon, and I recommend it as an alternative to handing out candy to trick-or-treaters and helping to create schools full of jittery children.

Public Poetry at the Northfield Public Library

In early August, the director of the Northfield Public Library, Teresa Jensen, asked me to write a poem to be displayed prominently in the...