Showing posts from September, 2007

Sermon: In the Dark

This morning, I was the guest speaker at the First United Church of Christ, Northfield, Minnesota. For those of you who are interested in reading my sermon, a text can be found here, where it can either be read on the screen or downloaded as a .pdf file (84k).

Banned Books Week 2007

Where's the topless sunbather? (A detail from Where's Waldo?)

Tomorrow is the start of Banned Books Week 2007. Clicking on the link will take you to the American Library Association's Banned Books Week website, which includes a list of the most challenged books of the decade 1990-2000, and lists of the most challenged books for each of the past six years. The lists include old-timers like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, as well as novels by Toni Morrison, Judy Blume, and J.K. Rowling. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn makes notoriously free use of the n-word, and has often been accused of being racist. Toni Morrison (whose novels The Bluest Eye and Beloved have been banned) acknowledges that the novel is problematic, but she says, "the rewards of my efforts to come to terms have been abundant." But how much easier it is to ban a book that troubles us than to engage with the challenges it presents!

The most challenged book of 20…

Reading Journal: The Pillowman

This morning, I sat in Goodbye Blue Monday with my small cappuccino and raspberry croissant and became completely absorbed in Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's Olivier Award-winning play, The Pillowman. Of course, I prefer seeing plays on the stage to reading them as texts, but this play seemed to jump off the page and stage itself in my head. It was brilliant, disturbing, and utterly captivating. Scene: a police interrogation room in an unnamed totalitarian state. Katurian, a writer, is under interrogation because two children have been found murdered in the same bizarre and brutal manners as children in Katurian's stories. McDonagh develops this disturbing premise into a chilling, gruesome, and darkly comic exploration of the human need for stories, with echoes of Kafka, Stoppard, Mamet, and the Brothers Grimm. The play contains strong language, and even stronger images—which, somehow, are brought to life on the stage. The play challenges the audience to make sense …

Reading Journal: "The Yiddish Policemen's Union"

Clara and I were invited to join a book group, and this was the first selection. I wouldn't have read it otherwise, so I'm extremely grateful to Jeff and Mary for inviting us to join the group. This is a terrific novel. But because Jeff is reading this blog right now, I will refrain from saying all the things I might say about the novel, lest he steal my ideas and dazzle everyone with them at the book group. I will say that Michael Chabon's novel is a stunning, audacious feat of the imagination. Imagine that there is no state of Israel, and that during World War II America provided temporary asylum to thousands of European Jews in Sitka, Alaska. Now imagine a Yiddish-speaking, slivovitz-swilling noz (police detective) named Meyer Landsman investigating a homicide among the down-and-out chess players and Hasidic mafia of Jewish Sitka on the eve of its reversion to American control. Still with me? You'll be with Michael Chabon every step of the way as soon as yo…

A Grand Day Out

I drove up to St. Paul today to have lunch with Peytie and hear about her first three weeks at college. We had lunch at Shish, a Mediterranean café at 1668 Grand Avenue, near the Macalester College campus. Peytie had an enormous chicken gyros, and I had the "maza mix"—a plate of hummus, baba ganoush, a pair of felafels, tzatziki, olives and feta, and a generous basket of pita bread. The two of us ate for about $17. If you're in the Macalester neighborhood, I recommend Shish for an affordable, fast, and delicious meal. The place is very relaxed and informal—the decor is basic; you place your order at the counter and take a number back to your table—and full of a good mix of college students and folks from the neighborhood, including quite a few small children. We lingered over our meal for two hours while Peytie told me all about her classes and her life at college, then she gave me a quick tour of the campus before rushing off to an audition for the college gospel…

Betray Us?

Because there are so many more knowledgeable and insightful political bloggers out there, I have resolved to steer away from political issues in this blog. Today, however, I was struck by the vote in the Senate to condemn MoveOn.Org for its full-page New York Times ad criticizing Gen. David Petraeus ("General Petraeus or General Betray Us?"). The Senate passed the resolution "to express the sense of the Senate that General David H. Petraeus, Commanding General, Multi-National Force-Iraq, deserves the full support of the Senate and strongly condemn personal attacks on the honor and integrity of General Petraeus and all members of the United States Armed Forces."

I was interested to note that Minnesota's Democratic Senator, Amy Klobuchar, voted in support of the resolution, breaking ranks with the majority of her party. As far as I could discover, she has not yet (as of 2:30 p.m.) issued a statement about her vote, but it's interesting to look at her vote i…

Research Journal: Mark Twain's Angelfish

One of the lesser known, and most controversial aspects of Mark Twain’s last years was his friendship with little girls, aged eight through sixteen, whom he called his Angelfish. He said that he “collected” young girls—in his words “girls who are pretty and sweet and naïve and innocent—dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears.” Many people who know about the Angelfish are disturbed, justifiably so, by the seventy-something Twain’s habit of surrounding himself with prepubescent girls. By his own admission, Twain wanted grandchildren—something his two surviving daughters had failed to provide him with. In 1907, when he started “collecting” his Angelfish, his wife and his favorite daughter, Susy, were both dead. His middle daughter, Clara, was spending most of her time in Europe, away from her father, and his youngest daughter, Jean, was in a sanatarium for epileptics, in virtual exile from her father’s hom…

School Day Blues

For years, my writing desk faced west.
In the morning, I watched the Episcopal Church
lay the shadow of its cross on the parking lot,
double-parked among the all-night permit holders.
As the sun rose it withdrew its blessing
to the middle of the street, crossing the traffic,
a smudge of ash thumbing penitential hoods.
The steeple at noon stood shadowless like the needle
of a gauge, showing the day half-empty.
In those first days of school, I often pushed
my shadow down the sidewalk like an empty stroller,
or spent long hours watching the cross’s shadow
wade against the current of the sun, waiting
to receive my own belated blessing. But now
my desk faces east, and in the morning I watch
other children waiting at the corner for the bus to come
like a clumsy vanishing act, leaving nothing but
a wisp of exhaust and a mother who looks both ways
before she walks her own long shadow across the street.

Bishop Hoyler

In 2000, our family moved one block east from the house where we had lived for our first decade in Northfield. That house, a little bungalow built in the early 1920s, was known to long-time Northfield residents as “Mabel Hoyler’s House.” Mabel Hoyler was the last Latin teacher at Northfield High School. She moved to Northfield in 1947, when her father retired after fifty-five years as a Moravian pastor, and lived with him (in what would later become our house) until his death in 1958. After her own retirement from teaching in 1976, she continued to tutor Latin students out of her home until shortly before her death in 1984.

The first Moravian church in western Canada, near Edmonton, where Rev. Clement Hoyler became the first pastor in 1896.

Her father, Clement Hoyler, was born in Wisconsin in 1872. His father Jacob Hoyler was also a Moravian pastor, and shortly after his son’s birth preached the dedicatory sermon at the new Moravian church on the corner of Eighth and Division Stre…

Around My Blogosphere

My LibraryThing friend Louise recently traveled to Washington D.C., for a whirlwind tour of the city's many museums. She's an excellent photographer and has exquisite taste in books and art, and her recent blog entry has me jonesing for a visit to the Smithsonian Institution to see its collection of American Impressionists. Where was I when the Smithsonian's traveling exhibition, American Impressionism, was at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2000? I'm in love with this painting in the Smithsonian's collection, Robert Reid's The Mirror (1910). Reid (1862-1929) was a member of a group of American painters who called themselves "The Ten," who banded together in an attempt to resist the prevailing commercialism of American art at the turn of the century. Perhaps the most famous of The Ten was Childe Hassam (1859-1935), famous for his patriotic scenes, his New England landscapes, and his paintings of Celia Thaxter's garden.

One American artist w…

Commonplace Book: The Prairie

"[The effects of glaciation] make much of the landscape look rather rough, unfinished, with an odd, rather helter-skelter arrangement, but, remember, ice many feet thick and weighing billions of tons per square mile is not the best kind of a tool with which to construct artistic-looking scenery on an otherwise fairly level terrain." —Edward W. Schmidt, The Geological Features of the Northfield Area (1938)

"The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings." —Willa Cather, O Pioneers! (1913)

"As to the impression made by a western town on a man fresh from the east,...I can sum up everything in one adjective, 'unfinished.'" —Rev. Paul de Schweinitz, address to the Northfield Improvement Association (1887)

"There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of whic…

Oaklawn Cemetery

The grave of Robert Watson (1825-1913) in Oaklawn Cemetery.

Since moving to Northfield from Cottage Grove in 1878, when his daughter Isabella* entered Carleton College, Robert Watson had been planting trees and urging his neighbors to do the same. Watson was born in Dundee, Scotland, in 1825, and had come to America as a young boy. He grew up in the woods of northern Ohio, and when he and his brother William arrived as settlers in Minnesota in 1850, they were immediately drawn to the home-like shelter of the oak savanna. Twenty-eight years later, he was distressed to find that east of the river Northfield was still, for the most part, a treeless prairie village.

Oaklawn Cemetery, landscaped by Robert Watson.

In the late 1880s, the Northfield Improvement Association, of which Watson was a member, began a campaign to establish a new cemetery in Northfield. In the 1840s, the influential horticulturalist Andrew Jackson Downing had been calling for the establishment of suburban cemeteries …

Reading Journal: "The Gentleman from Cracow"

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Until we left for England last year, we had a subscription to the Library of America. Every six weeks, a handsome new hardcover book would arrive in the mail. Although each book came on approval, I never returned a book, optimistically thinking that I might someday have a craving for Dreiser’s An American Tragedy or Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer. Among the volumes I’ve actually read are Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), Sinclair Lewis (Arrowsmith and Dodsworth), Theodore Roosevelt (Autobiography), and Henry Adams (The Education and most of Mont St. Michel and Chartres). Now I’m reading Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, in a volume that also includes Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In 2004, the Library of America issued a much-heralded three-volume centenary collection of the complete stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), the seventh American and only Yiddish writer to be awarded the Nobel Priz…

The Defeat of Jesse James Days

Defeat of Jesse James Days reenactors on horseback in the Grand Parade.

For those of you from out of town, here's the story. On September 7, 1876, Jesse James and his gang—brother Frank, the Younger brothers, and a few others—rode into Northfield with the intention of raiding the First National Bank. An assistant teller at the bank, Joseph Lee Heywood, died defending the safe, and the valiant townsfolk of Northfield took care of the James Gang. Two members of the gang were killed, and most of the rest were chased down a couple of weeks later. Frank and Jesse James escaped, but the Youngers were packed off to Stillwater state prison. In prison, Cole Younger settled down to making decorative wooden boxes, a couple of which are on display in the Northfield Historical Society Museum.

Veterans from the American Legion in the Grand Parade.

Each year, over the second weekend in September, Northfield commemorates the failed raid and the valiant actions of Heywood and the citizens who …

The Harborview

The Harborview.

Late yesterday afternoon, while the boys grazed on fried food at the Defeat of Jesse James Days, Clara and I escaped with our friends Chico and Rebecca to Pepin, Wisconsin, to eat at the fabulous Harborview Café. This weekend, Pepin is holding its own annual celebration: Laura Ingalls Wilder Days. Pepin is Wilder's birthplace and the nearby village in Little House in the Big Woods. Pepin is on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, near the southern end of the widening of the river known as Lake Pepin. The lake and its surrounding bluffs provide the perfect setting for an absolutely delicious and memorable meal. Last summer, in the weeks before we left for England, Clara and Rebecca rode their bikes from Northfield to Pepin, a distance of 67 miles—with one killer three-mile long hill near the end. The reward at the end was a swim in Lake Pepin and halibut with black butter caper sauce at the Harborview.

The Mystery of Metropolisville

Editor's Note: It's The Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield, that time of year when my thoughts turn to...getting out of town. Today's excursion took me as far as Cannon City.

On July 4, 1857, a holiday boating party on Crystal Lake turned tragic when the boat capsized and four people were drowned. The funeral for the drowning victims was presided over by a twenty-year old itinerant Methodist preacher named Edward Eggleston.

Crystal Lake, in Cannon City, Rice County, Minnesota.

Crystal Lake lies on the edge of the tiny village of Cannon City, about eight miles south of Northfield on Country Road 20. The lake has the distinction of being the only lake in Rice County that lies east of the Cannon River. The county's other lakes are west of the river, where the land has a more recent history of glaciation and is thus more poorly drained than the land east of the river. In the 1850s, when Eggleston arrived in Cannon City, the village was in the midst of a land specu…

On the Section Line

A survey marker in the Lower Arboretum.

Flying over Iowa on the last leg of our journey home from England, I knew I was back in the American Midwest. From the window of the plane, the landscape below looked like graph paper—a regular grid of green fields bounded by light gray roads. This landscape is the legacy of the great land survey that began near the banks of the Ohio River in 1785 and moved steadily westward as new land opened up for settlement. The survey mapped the land into a regular of six-mile-square townships, each divided into 36 one-mile-square sections. Rice County, for example, comprises fourteen separate six-mile-square townships (with a slight deviation, since Bridgewater and Northfield townships together include an extra twelve sections annexed from Dakota County, and are therefore not perfectly square). Each section is numbered. Our house on Fifth Street, for example, is in section 6, Township 111N (numbered relative to a baseline running east-west), Range 19W …

Rerun: A Long Post About Hedges

Editor's Note: It's too hot to write a long post, so I'm dipping into the archives. This post originally appeared in my Sabbatical blog last November. In a recent post on the oak savanna, I mentioned buckthorn. Here's the rest of the story...

A new hedgerow in Abbey Fields, Kenilworth

In November 1795, George Washington wrote to his farm manager, William Pearce: “There is nothing which has relation to my farms, not even the Crops of grain, that I am so solicitous about as getting my fields enclosed with live fences, I cannot too often, nor too strongly inculcate this doctrine upon you... [For] at least 15 years have I been urging my managers to substitute live fences in lieu of dead ones, which, if continued upon the extensive scale my farms require, must exhaust all my timber...” Washington’s weekly correspondence with Pearce was filled with instructions on the cultivation of hedges. He told Pearce to gather the berries of white thorn and cedar, to germinate and tran…

Made in Northfield

One of the best albums of the 1990s was recorded right here in Northfield. In November and December 1994, two-thirds of the defunct alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, frontman Jay Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn, joined Minnesotans Jim and Dave Boquist in Steve McKinstry's Salmagundi Studio, in downtown Northfield, to record Son Volt's classic debut album, Trace.

A Decade of Buffy

On March 3, 2007, I was standing in Tewkesbury Abbey, admiring the Norman and Decorated Gothic interior of my favorite English parish church. I was totally oblivious to the fact that, exactly ten years earlier, on March 3, 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on the fledgling (and now defunct) WB network, ushering in the greatest seven seasons in the the history of television. A few nights ago, Clara and Will and I began watching the entire brilliant series on DVD. Seven seasons of Slayery goodness! Watching Buffy reminds me that our next trip to England will have to include an excursion to Cornwall to visit St. Anthony Head.

Here, for your special delectation, is Joss Whedon's Equality Now speech (note: according to IMDb, Joss has left the Wonder Woman project alluded to in this video):

Publication Alert: "Jane Austen's Toes"

One of the few poems I wrote while I was in England, "Jane Austen's Toes," appears in the Fall 2007 issue of the Apple Valley Review (no connection to Apple Valley, Minnesota). Click the link to read the poem online.

Update (Tuesday, September 4): The poem receives a sympathetic notice here on AustenBlog.

Oak Savanna

The region was, in one sense, wild,though it offered a picture that was not without some of the strongest and most pleasing features of civilization... Although wooded, it was not, as the American forest is wont to grow, with tall straight trees towering toward the light, but with intervals between the low oaks that were scattered profusely over the view, and with much of that air of negligence that one is apt to see in grounds where art is made to assume the character of nature... In places they [the oaks] stand with a regularity resembling that of an orchard; then, again, they are more scattered and less formal, while wide breadths of the land are occasionally seen in which they stand in copses, with vacant spaces, that bear no small affinity to artificial lawns, being covered with verdure. The grasses are supposed to be owing to the fires lighted periodically by the Indians in order to clear their hunting grounds.
James Fenimore Cooper, The Oak Openings (1848)

When the first white se…