Showing posts from October, 2007


Blogging here will be irregular for a while as I attempt to get some non-blog writing done.

On the Birthday of Harold Brodkey

For a few years early in this decade, I worked as a researcher/writer for Garrison Keillor's show The Writers' Almanac. I remember clearly that on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was working on the script for the week of October 22, 2001. I was working on a piece about the writer Harold Brodkey (born October 25, 1930) when Clara called and told me to turn on the television.

GK demanded that Writers' Almanac scripts not sound too much like term papers. The trick was to deliver humorous or pithy anecdotes, not condensed literary criticism. I wasn't always successful at giving the great man exactly what he wanted, and what eventually aired on the radio was always different from what I had actually written. For example, here's my original piece on Harold Brodkey, written before and after the twin towers collapsed:

It’s the birthday of novelist and short story writer Harold Brodkey, born in Alton, Illinois (1930). He began working on his first novel in 1962, an…


After an acute case of blogorrhea in early October, my blogging has fallen off in recent days. Not a word from me about Dumbledore's sexuality or the fall colors or what William Dean Howells has to say about his characters' noses. Nothing about seeing the Guthrie Theater production of Jane Eyre on Saturday afternoon, or the distracting awfulness of the actors' English accents. Nothing about Sunday's pork tenderloin braised with wild mushrooms and juniper berries. Not one mention of having the first fire of the season in the wood stove and reading a Laurie R. King mystery aloud to Clara while she knit a sweater. And did I mention that Clara's mother is visiting? No, I never mentioned it. For three whole days, not a single link to something brilliant. Not a single word about what the mayor has done. I never blogged about any of these things, and now you will never know about them.

Books & Climate Change

A book from the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, showing extensive water and insect damage. Global warming is responsible for increasing harm to the world's cultural heritage.

It's been a rough year for Blickling Hall, a spectacular Jacobean manor house in Norwich, England, owned by the National Trust. In June, torrential rains and flooding caused serious damage to the property, including water damage to priceless and irreplaceable seventeenth- century plaster ceilings. The increase in severe weather, including hurricanes in the Caribbean and flooding in Britain, has been attributed to global warming, as warmer sea and air temperatures wreak havoc with weather systems around the world. One major threat that Britain faces is the possibility that warmer sea temperatures will disrupt the Gulf Stream, which circulates warm water and air from the Gulf of Mexico toward Britain, creating England's temperate (and wet) climate. (England is further north than Minnesota, yet …

Autumnal (In Memory of David Kjerland)

Yesterday was a dreary day. I had a headache for most of the day. The Cleveland Indians did not advance to the World Series. Josh Beckett's tight curveball jumped over the Cleveland bats as if they were under some sort of ball-repelling spell. I missed most of the game because I went out to a poetry reading at Monkey See, Monkey Read to celebrate the publication of the Northfield Women Poets' new collection, Penchant. NWP was started in the late 1960s by Riki Kölbl Nelson and Karen Herseth Wee, and both of them were there to read last night, along with Beverly Voldseth, Andrea Een, Karen Sandberg, Susan Thurston Hamerski, and Marie Vogl Gery. Their beautiful book is available at Monkey See for $15.98 (tax included). The audience for the reading was mostly women, with a small handful of men—including Jerry Bilek, who hosted the event, and Scott King, who designed the book and wrote the foreword. I felt we were more united by poetry than we were divided by gender.

I enjoy …


Note: With apologies to my brother-in-law in New England, I'm hoping the Cleveland Indians (despite their shameful logo) go all the way this year, beginning with a decisive ALCS win against Boston tonight. This has been a year without baseball for me. I missed Twins games and Will's NYBA games over at Sechler Park. In England, the closest I came to seeing baseball was watching the little children at St. Nicholas Primary School learning to play rounders. But as 27 Major League teams are saying at this point in October: "Next year..."

September 10, 2001 was Will’s tenth birthday. His golden birthday. Ten years old on the tenth day of the month. We took him out to Red Lobster (his choice) for crab legs and lobster tails. He told us it was his best birthday ever. He got dozens of baseball cards and the promise of a Twins game at the Metrodome.

I remember the day he was born, a gray day in early September when the 1991 Minnesota Twins, destined for a World Series…

Why I Missed Blog Action Day

Yesterday was Blog Action Day, when bloggers everywhere are supposed to unite in posting about a single issue: the environment. I consider this the most important issue facing the world today, but this blog (after a long string of daily posts) was silent. Why? Because we were too busy yesterday having a home energy audit.

The most dramatic part of the energy audit is the "blower door test," which determines how much air is being leaked from the house. The front door is sealed and fitted with an exhaust fan that blows air out of the house, creating a pressure difference of 50 Pascals between the inside and outside of the house. This creates the effect of a 30 mph wind blowing on the house from all directions. A series of pressure gauges determine how much air, in cubic feet per minute, is being leaked from the house. (This is sometimes expressed as ACH—air changes per hour, or how often the entire volume of air in the house is exchanged). A well-sealed house typically …

"A Good Forehead"

William Dean Howells' novel The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) begins with a journalist sitting down to interview wealthy businessman Silas Lapham. While the subject of the interview settles down to talk, the journalist jots down a quick sketch of Lapham's physical appearance. We learn from this description that Lapham has a "good forehead."

What is a good forehead? The phrase was in common use in the nineteenth century, and its meaning seems to have been generally understood. Even a child knew what a good forehead was. Here's part of a little dialogue between a mother and daughter (Sophia) from The Youth's Companion (1838). The title of the dialogue is "O, How I Wish to Be Pretty."

Mama: Pray, my dear, explain to me what you think essential to beauty?
Sophia: That is easily done. A fair complexion, very bright eyes, soft, dark hair, and perhaps, too, a good forehead.

Two years later, a journalist described newly-elected Senator Augustus S. Porter of…

Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross at the NAG Theater

Last night, Clara and I attended the current production of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross at the Northfield Arts Guild Theater on Third Street. The theater, which until 1960 was St. Peter's Lutheran Church, has probably never experienced such a range and quantity of profanity. Mamet's play is tough and unflinching, and the language is fired off at a machine-gun pace, and it's a tribute to the cast and crew that they pulled it off with such aplomb. The NAG Theater has been growing more adventurous of late, thanks in part, I suspect, to the influence of Brendon Etter, who doesn't seem averse to taking risks. In recent years, the NAG has taken on Arthur Miller's The Price, Kander and Ebb's Cabaret, Ibsen's The Enemy of the People, and Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes (a version of Sophocles' Antigone). In January, the NAG will stage Brendon's own series of short plays, provocatively titled Sex with Seven Women. Judging from the ful…

Secondhand Books

Yesterday, the box of used books that I mailed from England more than two months ago finally arrived. The box contained treasures like Marghanita Laski's The Village, which I bought at the wonderful Staffs Bookshop in Lichfield, not far from Lichfield Cathedral and Samuel Johnson's birthplace. There's also a bookshop on the ground floor of the birthplace itself, occupying the same room from which Dr. Johnson's father sold books at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Unfortunately, bookselling was not the most profitable occupation, even in a cultured cathedral town like Lichfield, and Michael Johnson often had difficulty making ends meet. But what a start in life for a budding lexicographer like young Samuel, growing up in a house full of books!

Michael Johnson wouldn't have it any easier as a bookseller three hundred years later—unless he was willing to go online. According to a recent story in Entrepreneur, used bookstores are prime candidates for extin…

Update: The Armenian Resolution

The resolution on the Armenian genocide cleared a House panel yesterday, bringing it to the full House for an eventual vote. Predictably, the Turkish government protested the action. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I tend to agree with President Bush that this resolution is the wrong response at the wrong time, and only serves to anger an important ally. Or rather, to avoid the creepy feeling of agreeing with Bush, I agree with Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), who opposed the resolution, saying, "We have failed to do what we're asking other people to do." Meeks, an African-American, is talking about the failure of Congress to address, with similar resolutions, this country's own treatment of indigenous peoples or its history of slavery.

It's been estimated that since Columbus arrived, 515 years ago tomorrow, the indigenous population of the Western Hemisphere has declined by 100 million.* Was this a genocide? Many people, especially Native Americans, …


Izmir, Turkey. Photo by my nephew, Thomas Shaw.

One of the stories in the news today is that President Bush is urging Congress to reject a resolution that would officially recognize the Armenian genocide, the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey during World War I. Bush recognizes that the "mass killings" took place, and that the Armenians suffered tragically, but he's concerned that recognizing the killings as "genocide" will harm U.S.-Turkish relationships. I'm particularly interested in those relationships at the moment because my eighteen-year old nephew is currently an AFS exchange student in the Turkish city of Izmir (known to the Greeks as Smyrna).

The treatment of the Armenians in Turkey is a contentious issue. To get a sense of the history and the passions on both sides, I highly recommend Canadian director Atom Egoyan's brilliant 2002 film Ararat, which in a deeply textured and thought-provoking way explores how our identities and ac…

My Distinguished Wife

Clara left for Oberlin, Ohio, this afternoon, where at 4:30 pm tomorrow (Wednesday, October 10) she'll be delivering the Distinguished Alumni Lecture in Classics at Oberlin College.

Reading Journal: The Call of Cthulhu

In August 1986, before I started graduate school at Brown University, I moved into a depressing three-story brick apartment building on Gano Street in Providence, Rhode Island. I was on the third floor. Directly below me, on the first floor, was a history graduate student named Mike who spent his free time listening to The Cure and pondering the Dark Arts. He was convinced that Providence stood at the convergence of powerful ley lines which made the city a focus of paranormal activity. One piece of his evidence was the fact that Providence was the home of H. P. Lovecraft, who was born there in 1890 and who died there in 1937.

Lovecraft was a writer of horror tales whose work originally appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales, and who was recently (and somewhat controversially) canonized by inclusion in the Library of America. It was in the Library of America volume of his Tales (2005) that I read what is probably Lovecraft’s most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu.” The story…

Columbus Day

Take away this Columbus Day
No more bones on display
Blackhawk never had a say
Just taken out of the picture.
—"Out of the Picture," from the Son Volt album Trace

Martin Waldseemüller's 1507 "globe gores" map of the world, the first map to include the name "America" (on the far right of the map). In the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota.

Today is Columbus Day, which thanks to a 1971 law is observed on the second Monday of October rather than on October 12, the original date of the holiday. (In Canada, today is Thanksgiving Day.) The first official proclamation of a national Columbus Day was made by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's "discovery" of America. There are, of course, all kinds of problems with celebrating Columbus's "discovery" of a continent which was already inhabited by millions of people who, in subsequent centuries, became the victims of genoc…

A Romantic Just Food Dinner

On her Penelopedia blog, Penny recently issued an appeal to her readers to become owner-members of Northfield's community co-op, Just Food. (I was one of the first 200 members, before the store opened.) Penny points out that, with its wealth of produce from local suppliers, Just Food helps to promote a "sense of place in the food system." I like that about Just Food, but I also like the fact that it's as close as I can come in Northfield to the Thursday market in downtown Kenilworth, which we visited nearly every week last year. The market featured a large produce tent, artisan cheeses and breads, and (best of all), a fishmonger. Britain is, of course, an island surrounded by the sea, so the fish and seafood we were able to get in Kenilworth was fantastically fresh and varied. My favorite "local" items were the famous mussels from Conwy in Wales, a firm white fish called John Dory from England's south coast, an amazing sea vegetable called samphir…


Last night, I had said that I would show up for the open mike night at Tiny's to read a poem or two, but then I found out about a free concert at St. Olaf by the Renaissance band Piffaro, featuring music by Flemish masters Josquin des Prez, Nicholas Gombert, and others. The allure of shawms, sackbuts, bagpipes, and krumhorns was too strong. I thoroughly enjoyed the concert (especially the bagpipes), despite the sweltering atmosphere inside Boe Memorial Chapel. But I did feel guilty about missing the poetry night. So, here's the poem I would have read. It's, as the blog says, a rough draft. Your comments are always welcome.


In Boy Scouts, I was the boy
who cooked the meals.
I loved my father’s old mess kit
and his pocket knife
that seemed to give birth to itself
in the unfolding of its compact blades.
I still remember with pride
my first powdered-egg omelet,
cooked over a campfire in the Adirondacks,
the reflector oven cornbread,
the cast-iron cauldrons of chili,
the foil-wra…

Po'Girl (Bonus Post)

Po'Girl: Diona Davies, Trish Klein, Awna Teixiera, and Allison Russell.

Not counting the year in Kenilworth (52° 20' N), I’ve lived my entire life in the frosty latitudes between 41° 17' N (Oberlin, Ohio) and 44° 27' N (Northfield, Minnesota)—the latitudes of maple and oak, apple orchards, glacial landforms, and accents flattening out toward Canada. Because of my narrow geographical experience, my imagination has always been drawn northwards and southwards, to the imaginary geography of Canada and the South. Some of my favorite music these days comes out of Vancouver, British Columbia, and the interconnected group of women who make up The Be Good Tanyas and Po'Girl. It’s music that looks south for many of its influences—blues, country, and bluegrass—but it’s more authentic and heartfelt than almost anything coming out of Nashville. If you have iTunes, go to the music store now and drop 99¢ to download the song “Take the Long Way,” from Po’ Girl’s 2004 CD Vagabo…

The Urge for Going

Yesterday, I was distracted by the seasonally-confused day. It felt like summer and looked like fall. In an autumnal mood, I walked through the upper arboretum, listening to Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going" on my iPod, trying to summon back the cool autumn weather:

I awoke today and found the frost perched on the town
It hovered in a frozen sky, then it gobbled summer down
When the sun turns traitor cold
and all the trees are shivering in a naked row
I get the urge for going but I never seem to go

I get the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown
Summertime is falling down and winter is closing in

One of my favorite songs of all time. I love the line about "the geese in chevron flight." The Canada geese tend to winter here in Rice County, and what looks like the chevron flight of migration is just shuttling back and forth in search of food and open water. But there are other signs that the fall migration is underway, despite the unseasonably…

The Pleasure of Ruins

Archibald Mill ruins, on the Cannon River, Dundas, Minnesota.

Traveling up the Ohio River to Cincinnati in the late 1820s, English traveler Fanny Trollope found the scenery beautiful, but a trifle monotonous. “Were there occasionally a ruined abbey, or feudal castle, to mix the romance of real life with that of nature,” Mrs. Trollope wrote, “the Ohio would be perfect.” A few years later, American writer James Fenimore Cooper began a long sojourn in Europe with his family, and his daughter Susan was impressed by how full Europe was of monuments of past ages, from the crumbling temples of Greece and Rome to the castles and cathedrals of the middle ages. She, like many American travelers since, was impressed by how old everything was, and how durable. Returning to America, she was disappointed in the fugitive nature of American civilization: it seemed temporary, disposable. Looking back at the antiquities of Europe, Cooper wrote: "How different from all this is the aspect of our …

Bur Oak Guy

Yesterday, my friend Margit sent me this photograph she had taken of the bur oak that stands on the knoll southwest of the Carleton Recreation Center. She reminded me that ten years ago, in April 1997, I stood up at a packed meeting in Skinner Chapel and pleaded for this oak tree to be spared from the chainsaw. Carleton had recently unveiled its plans for the rec center, which originally sited the massive building further to the southwest, adjacent to Goodhue Hall. The architect, ignorant of local landscape history, had gone out of his way to to preserve "a fine stand of pines" near the site, but his plans spelled doom for that old bur oak. At the meeting, I pointed out that the oak, not the stand of pines, was native, and had probably stood on that land long before Carleton College existed. I said, with the intact idealism of a father of a preschooler and a kindergartner: "I'm trying to teach my boys that they belong to a larger biotic community, and I'm …

To the Woman Ahead of Me in the Checkout Line, Buying Lottery Tickets

Lady, this is already your lucky day.

Lucky for you that, when I was a boy,
my mother took forever in the grocery store,
stopping to chat with someone in every aisle,
and in the eternities while my mother talked
I learned to live another life inside my head.

Lucky for you that my friend and I recently had
a conversation about all the impulses
we successfully resist—the sudden, irrational urge
to swerve off the side of the road, or to fold
our bulletins into paper airplanes and launch them
at the minister, or to beat the woman
buying lottery tickets over the head with a 16-oz.
can of diced tomatoes. Why don’t we
do more damage—or more good? Our worst
and our best impulses are like the Powerball—
we keep buying the tickets, but we never hit the jackpot.

Lucky for you that, even this late in the year,
I’ve kept my New Year’s resolution
to be more patient in the checkout line.
Sometimes, in fact, I deliberately choose
the slowest line. I stand behind the old woman
who smells of cigarettes, whose shaking han…


Note: In response to a discussion about invasive species going on over on Jim's blog, here's a little piece I wrote on the concept of coevolution. If there are any real scientists out there in the audience, I'd be thrilled to have your feedback (including, of course, your corrections of any errors I've made). I know that the issues are more complex than I've presented them here.

Have you ever seen the metallic shimmer of a hummingbird dipping its beak into the scarlet flower of a trumpet vine or coral honeysuckle? If you could freeze time for a moment and step up to take a closer look, you would see that the long, slender tongue of the hummingbird is perfectly adapted for extracting nectar from the flower’s deep corolla. Bird and flower seem to be made for each other. In a sense, they are—their perfect fit for each other is the result of a long process known as “coevolution.” Coevolution is said to occur when, in the words of biologist Paul Ehrlich, two or mor…