Sunday, August 31, 2008

Reading Journal: "Mean Genes"

Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan, Mean Genes. From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2000. 252 pp.

Writing in the Winter 2008 issue of the conservative magazine The New Atlantis, Yuval Levin ("Science and the Left") attempts to answer the charge that conservatives are waging a war against science by turning the argument on its head and portraying the left as anti-science. Equating science with technological progress, Levin paints environmentalists as Luddites out of step with the modern world:
[W]rit large, the environmental movement aims to repeal the modern way of life. At its most ambitious, it seeks to curb industrialism and consumerism, to make the human experience less artificial and more “authentic” (or, to employ the favored buzzword of the day, “organic”), to emphasize the simple and the local, to reduce the scale of human ambition. This describes a brand of conservatism too conservative even for the American right, and one that is deeply at odds with the ethic of rationalization and scientific improvement and progress.
Bill McKibben's book Deep Economy is a good example of this brand of environmentalism, with its emphasis on fostering local economies and replacing the economics of growth with the economics of satisfaction. In McKibben's world, for example, farmers would reject the "scientific improvements" that brought them genetically modified seeds and petroleum-based fertilizers, and return to traditional knowledge. His model is his home state of Vermont, with its town meetings and small organic producers.

One of the potential problems with McKibben's vision of the world is that it seems to be at odds with human nature. Human beings, as we learn from Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan in Mean Genes, are not genetically programmed for moderation. Because the human species evolved in conditions of frequent scarcity and in the absence of technologies for preserving food, our genes tell us to consume everything in sight. Our hunter-gatherer genes tell us that the fatter we are and the more stuff we have and the more we push ourselves, the better chance we have of passing along our genetic material. In the modern world, our genes are in clover.

Our genes evolved under conditions very different from those in the modern industrialized world. Zoo animals, without the need to compete for scarce resources, regularly become overweight. Modern humans in wealthy societies like America, Burnham and Phelan argue, are like animals in a zoo. Our genes evolved in the wild, not in the well-stocked cage of the modern world.

In the 1960s, the !Kung San tribe in Saharan Africa were still living as hunter-gathers, much as our common ancestors did thousands of years ago. They lived in relative peace with each other and in balance with nature. Then well-intentioned Westerners bored wells for the !Kung San, for whom scarcity of water had been a perennial problem. The nomadic tribe settled down around the wells, and soon their hunters had depleted all of the local game, their village filled up with waste, and disease and social tension increased.

Western industrial society is the !Kung San writ large. We've created a situation of artificial abundance for our overreaching genes, and with that abundance we've created a host of environmental and social problems. As Burnham and Phelan put it, "our love of possessions, food, and generally easy living has moved us far from our natural setting, creating a plague of troubles in the process."

But, as the authors acknowledge, progress and innovation, too, are in our genes, and it's human to look for technological fixes for our current problems. We reach for diet pills and ethanol in the belief that we can continue to consume as we have always done. On the other hand, our genes evolved in the context of small, local communities, in an environment in which cycles of scarcity put the breaks on overconsumption. The movement toward simplicity and localism, which Yuval Levin characterizes as an attempt to "repeal the modern way of life," is also in our nature.

Although our genes drive us to relentless consumption—to obesity, greed, and sexual promiscuity—we humans are also uniquely capable of self-control, and the values of moderation are built into Western culture. The Greeks counseled avoiding extremes and keeping to the middle path of proportion and moderation. That love of proportion is innate in humans as well. Burnham and Phelan discuss studies which show that beauty in human faces and bodies is, across cultures, associated with symmetry and proportionality. The Greeks realized this, and applied that love of the Golden Mean to ethics as well as aesthetics. Our genes rush toward extremes, but we are also able to rein in those primal instincts.

Burnham and Phelan's book shows the evolutionary basis for some of our worst behaviors, including overeating, addiction, greed, infidelity, and domestic violence. All are rooted in the survival of the fittest, in the relentless drive of our genes to perpetuate themselves. The book is full of fascinating illustrations from natural science and anthropology, from gender-switching fish, to obese orangutans, to the male thorny-headed worm who secretes cement to seal his mate's vagina after intercourse. The book also avoids the thickets of scientific jargon that obscured William Loomis's fine book Life As It Is. Burnham and Phelan write in a breezy, popularizing style that's sometimes a little silly, but always gets its point across.

Further reading: David Villano, "A Future of Less," Miller-McCune September 2008. Villano talks to Mean Genes co-author Jay Phelan, among others, about our culture of overconsumption.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cross Country Season

The fall cross country season has started. Yesterday, Will and Peter ran in their first meet of the season, the Irish Invitational in Rosemount, Minnesota. Will hasn't competed since October 2006, when he ran half-heartedly for the Kenilworth team at a meet in Henley-in-Arden. Running in the C race, Will was the top finisher for the Northfield boys (19th overall), with a time of 12:31.9 for the 2 mile distance. (His time would also have made him the top finisher for the Northfield JV.) Freshman Peter finished in the middle of the pack with a respectable 14:08.9. The complete results are here. Meanwhile, out in Ohio, my niece and nephew competed in the Case Western Reserve Invitational this afternoon. The Oberlin women finished second in the 5K run. My niece Clara, a junior, finished 16th overall, with a time of 20:45. The story is here.

Friday, August 29, 2008


Last Wednesday, My Northern Garden posted about the apparent scarcity of monarch butterflies this August. I'm happy to report that, this afternoon, the monarchs were out in force in the oak savanna and at the edge of the prairie in the Lower Arboretum. Here's one of the dozens of monarchs that Clara and I saw on our walk today.

Stem Cell Research

The issue of embryonic stem cell research is one issue on which the "maverick" John McCain has been lassoed and drawn closer to the Christian right of the Republican party, which has built a total ban on embryonic stem cell research into the party platform. As a Senator, McCain has backed embryonic stem cell research. As recently as April 2007, he joined a Democratic majority in voting for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007 (text), which was passed by Congress and eventually vetoed by President Bush.

The legislation would have authorized research involving stem cell lines derived from human embryos "that have been donated from in vitro fertilization clinics, were created for the purposes of fertility treatment, and were in excess of the clinical need of the individuals seeking such treatment." In order to increase the chances of successful in vitro fertilization, fertility clinics routinely fertilize multiple eggs to create pre-embryos. Some are implanted, others are frozen and stored. Most of these embryos are unneeded, and are eventually destroyed. The bill, which Obama co-sponsored and McCain supported, would have put these embryos to use in the creation of stem cell lines.

As recently as January of this year, McCain told a town hall meeting that on the issue of embryonic stem cell research, "I have not changed my position yet." But the platform of the Republic Party calls for a total ban on human embryonic stem cell research, both public and private.

Meanwhile, science has stepped in to help McCain finesse his position. New research indicates that stem cells are sloughed from the developing fetus and float freely in the amniotic fluid, from which they can be safely extracted. These stem cells, known as amniotic stem cells, appear to be especially promising for research purposes. It has also been shown that at the eight-cell stage of embryonic development, a single cell can be removed without harm to the embryo. The extracted cell can be used to develop a new stem cell line. Scientists stress, however, that these new options are not yet a substitute for embryonic stem cell research.

On his campaign website, McCain states his opposition to the "intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes." This wording seems not to preclude the use of embryos created for purposes of in vitro fertilization. He also specifically supports amniotic stem cell research.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in January 2007 indicated that 61% of respondents supported embryonic stem cell research. Even within the Republican Party, there are supporters of stem cell research for therapeutic purposes, including high-profile Republicans like Nancy Reagan. Although the majority of the American people favor stem cell research, the official GOP platform has been hijacked by "pro-life" extremists.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

In Praise of C-SPAN

I've spent the past two evenings riveted to C-SPAN (in normal times, an oxymoron), watching a succession of great speeches at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. The oratorical high points have been speeches by Montana's Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer, John Kerry, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. There has been so much passion on display, so much intelligence, so much vision for a better and stronger and more upright America: an America that cares for its most vulnerable citizens; honors its veterans; recognizes and respects the rights of women; repudiates torture; and leads the world in addressing global security issues like climate change and HIV-AIDS. Bill Clinton had the best turn of phrase of the convention so far when he spoke about an America that "leads by the power of its example, not by the example of its power."

The Democratic vision for America has been like yesterday's rain after weeks and weeks of drought.

Unfortunately, if you haven't been watching on C-SPAN, you will have missed John Kerry's speech to the convention. If you've been watching on the networks, you will have been subjected to nattering news personalities talking across the speeches, filtering out the content and the passion, serving up colorless commentary in place of the real issues and the real news. Do we need Tom Brokaw to tell us that Bill Clinton gave an unenthusiastic speech, when we have contradictory evidence—a great and impassioned speech, and an enthusiastic endorsement of Obama—right before our eyes? The media has a script—Democratic disunity—that it desperately clings to despite the real drama of unity and far-reaching vision that the Democrats are actually presenting at the convention. America needs to start using its own brain, not a brain borrowed from a pundit.

Here, for those of you who missed it, is Sen. John Kerry at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Listen especially to what he says about the difference between Senator McCain and candidate McCain.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Reading Journal: "The Getting of Wisdom"

Henry Handel Richardson [Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson], The Getting of Wisdom. First published in 1910. Reprinted by Virago Modern Classics in 1981. Note: the cover of the Virago edition features a still from the 1978 film version of the novel, directed by Bruce Beresford.

Twelve-year old Australian schoolgirl Laura Tweedle Rambotham is, in many ways, typical of a generation of fictional girls who came of age in the years between the end of the American Civil War and the beginning of World War I. She is spirited, independent, passionate, rebellious, sensitive, and smart. A girl from the wild provinces, she moves uncertainly, often with disastrous missteps, among the tight-laced conventions of her girls' school in Melbourne. Her true sisters are Jo March (1868), Rebecca Randall (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, 1903), Anne Shirley (1908), and Judy Abbott (Daddy Long-Legs, 1912). In a brief episode that perhaps echoes a famous scene in Little Women, Laura cuts off a long lock of her beautiful hair in a gesture that she hopes will please her overworked mother. But things never go well for Laura. Unlike her fictional sisters, Laura is moody, obsessive, relentlessly mean to her younger sister, and ungracious to her mother. She's ashamed of her poor family. She clings to her friends with the precarious egotism of a child who lacks self-assurance. She is often highly unpleasant. She is, in other words, real.

Laura's problem—the perennial problem—is that the Victorian conventions of school repress and warp her best qualities—her imagination, her energy, her independence—as she attempts to fit in. Her glorious imagination, given no outlet in the dull traditional curriculum of the school, is misdirected into lying about her relationship with the local curate in a rash attempt to make herself interesting and popular. Her starved need for real affection, when cultivated by an attractive older girl, becomes a weedy obsession. We begin to dislike Laura, but we understand her and sympathize with her. We can perhaps remember what it was like when school was the entire world, and fitting in there meant everything. Perhaps we know what it's like to feel different from others, what it's like to deform our real natures in an attempt to be like everyone else. Laura doesn't realize that what she has inside, her true self, is valuable.

It's hard to read about an often sullen girl who's going through a prolonged "phase," but Richardson's novel is a wonderfully sensitive reminder of the complexities of early adolescent behavior. Laura is not willfully bad. Her intention is always to be a part of the community around her while somehow holding onto herself. Unfortunately, she doesn't fully understand herself. Her sullenness, her occasional meanness, her "acting out," are the signs of a bruised and sensitive ego attempting to assert itself, and not knowing quite how.
You might regulate your outward habit to the last button of what you were expected to wear; you might conceal the tiny flaws and shuffle over the big improprieties in your home life, which were likely to damage your value in the eyes of your companions; you might, in brief, march in the strictest order along the narrow road laid down for you by these young lawgivers, keeping perfect step and time with them: yet of what use were all your pains, if you could not marshal your thoughts and feelings—the very realest part of you—in rank and file as well?...if these persisted in escaping control?
That's the essence of Laura's struggle: she tries to make her inside—her "realest part"—conform with the conventions and expectations of the world around her. One of the most important things she has to learn is how to use her imagination, how to negotiate between the social world around her and the world of creativity and imagination welling up inside of her. She hasn't yet discovered what it means to be an artist, and so only succeeds at being a liar and a misfit.

In one episode in the novel, Laura, a voracious reader, surreptitiously borrows books from the headmaster's parlor and reads them while practicing the piano. She choses the books at random, and on one occasion, she takes Ibsen's A Doll's House from the shelf. She finds the realism odd and dull, and can't understand the tension in the play between keeping up appearances and expressing oneself, between being a plaything for others and being a real person for oneself. This is something Laura still has to learn.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Kabobs and Mango Rice

During our three-week stay on the island this summer, Will was visiting friends in England, so he missed the Indian meal cooked for us by Clara's high school friend, Jhumku. The meal featured sheehk kabobs, mango rice, and homemade chutney. Last night, I gave Will a taste of what he missed. His unsolicited opinion: "This is really good." To be more authentic, the kabobs should be molded around a bamboo skewer, or made into meatballs and skewered with pieces of onion and bell pepper. But for ease of grilling, I made the "kabobs" into patties. Something green—perhaps green beans instead of corn—would have balanced the plate's color wheel a little better! Note also that I served Patak's Major Grey chutney from a jar, instead of making my own chutney. The mangoes ($1.79 each) at Just Food Coop are outstanding, but a batch of homemade mango chutney requires half a dozen of them, so I settled for fresh mango in the rice.

Thanks to Jhumku Kohtz for the recipes, and for some great Indian cooking back in June.

Sheekh Kabob
1. In a food processor, chop together to create a medium paste: 5 jalapeños, 6 cloves of garlic, and a two inch piece of fresh ginger (peeled).
2. Combine 2 tablespoons of the ginger paste with: 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin seed, 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed, 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel seed, 1 teaspoon turmeric, 1 tablespoon dried mint leaves, and salt and pepper to taste. Note: I ground together the spices with a mortar and pestle before combining with the ginger paste. Combine with 1 pound ground meat (beef, turkey, or lamb).*
3. Knead in 1 beaten egg, 1/4 cup breadcrumbs, and a splash of balsamic vinegar.
4. Shape into meatballs (or patties, see above) and grill.

Mango Rice
1. Soak 1 cup basmati rice in cold water for half an hour, rinse in several changes of water
2. Heat 1-2 tablespoons of vegetable oil and stir in: 1 cinnamon stick, 4 cloves, 4 cardamom seeds, and 1 bay leaf. Heat, stirring, for 30 seconds.
3. Add one small finely chopped onion and sauté until golden.
4. Add cubed pieces of one mango.
5. Add 1 3/4 cups of water and bring to a boil.
6. Add a pinch of saffron, 2 cubes of chicken bouillon, 1/4 stick butter, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and boil for one minute.
7. Add rinsed and drained rice, bring to boil, cover, and simmer on low heat for 15 minutes.
8. Remove from heat. Let sit, covered, 5 minutes. Fluff with fork.

*I used local grass-fed beef from Thousand Hills Cattle Company in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. All ingredients were purchased at Just Food Coop.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Late August Prairie

August is drawing to a close, and McKnight Prairie is dressing itself in purple and gold for a Minnesota fall.

Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera)

Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida)

Also blooming are flowering spurge, prairie onion, ground cherry, false boneset, and other varieties of goldenrod.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Octopus Marginatus Walks Again

Back in November, I was thrilled to get a comment on my blog from the marine biologist whose research inspired my poem "Midlife Crisis While Watching a Nature Program." Today, I'm thrilled again to find that the poem has been posted by a member of a LiveJournal Community devoted to favorite poems. Thanks to "arielblue" for posting the poem, and to all the commenters who loved the poem, and to Steph Kroll (Carleton '08) for sending the link to Clara.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

First Signs of Fall

Classes at Carleton College start in less than a month, and this morning the real preparations begin. These books will be my constant companions throughout the fall: the Cambridge Greek text of Sophocles' Antigone, Smyth's Greek Grammar and Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Top of the Pod: "Dirt Farmer"

My favorite non-musical moment in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's legendary 1978 film of The Band's final concert, is a scene in which Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson are sitting around talking about musical influences, or something. It's hard to concentrate on what's being said, because Helm strikes a match, lights Robertson's cigarette, and continues to hold the burning match for the longest time while he finishes his thought. Is he going to burn his fingers? Finally, he lights his own cigarette and shakes out the match.

Come to think of it, all of my favorite musical moments in the film are centered around Levon Helm, too. "Up On Cripple Creek," "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"—those were The Band's signature tunes, and all of them featured Helm's powerful and distinctive vocals. When the film was released, Levon Helm complained that The Last Waltz had turned into Robbie Robertson's private art house ego trip, but for me, Helm stole the show and put the real heart into it. He's one hell of a drummer, too.

In 1998, Levon Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer, and underwent surgery and radiation therapy. Cancer robbed his voice of some of its power and versatility, but took none of its soulfulness and conviction. Helm was the son of a cotton farmer from Marvell, in southeastern Arkansas, and on Dirt Farmer, his Grammy-winning 2007 comeback album, he returns to his roots. The disc starts out with a Ralph Stanley tune, "False Hearted Lover Blues," featuring some outstanding drumming and passionate vocals that sound no less grittily authoritative than those of Mr. Stanley himself. Just as important, Helm sounds like he's having a hell of a lot of fun making music.

Dirt Farmer mixes traditional tunes, like "The Girl I Left Behind" (which Helm learned from his parents), with covers of songs by the likes of Steve Earle ("The Mountain") and Paul Kennerly ("A Train Robbery"). The band features the great guitar work of Larry Campbell and beautiful backing vocals by Teresa Williams and Helm's daughter Amy. One of my favorite moments is in the title song, "Dirt Farmer," when he sings:

Poor old dirt farmer, how bad he must feel,
He fell off his tractor, up under the wheel,
And now his head
Is shaped like a tread
But he ain't quite dead.

You get the feeling, listening to Levon Helm's voice, that he's been there—that he's fallen off his tractor a time or two, burned his fingers on that match, and survived to see the humor. A lot of life has gone into that voice.

Bonus link: Only Halfway Home, a 20-minute film featuring four songs from the album.

Reading Journal: "I'm Not Complaining"

Ruth Adam, I'm Not Complaining. Originally published in 1938. Reissued by Virago Modern Classics in 1983.

In 1936, unemployment stood at 25% or more in some parts of England. In some northeastern cities, unemployment reached as high as 70%. Factories in the industrial north of England stood idle, and men who had once made their living mining coal were now reduced to scavenging slagheaps for scraps of coal to heat their homes. Families tottered on the edge of starvation. Chronically unemployed men soon lost their self-respect, and women in the labor force began to be viewed with renewed distrust. The modest gains that women had made in the workforce during the 1920s began to be erased, and marriage and domesticity were again promoted as women's proper sphere. Popular women's magazines, writes Ruth Adam in A Woman's Place, 1910-1975, "all rammed home the same messages, that a man's enduring love was the only important thing in the whole of a woman's life; and that if you did not find the whole absorbing world of shopping, cooking, knitting, and bringing up children sufficient to occupy your time and talents, it was only because there was something wrong with you." Experts worried, too, about the declining birthrate in England, which was blamed in part on women's entry into the workforce and the increased availability of contraception. One expert wrote in 1936: "The physiological need of every woman is unsatisfied if she does not bear children."

Domestic service, nursing, and teaching remained the only careers acceptable for women. Teaching was a profession for unmarried women; teachers were required to resign from their positions when they married in order to devote themselves to their husbands and families. It wasn't until 1944 that the ban on married teachers was lifted in Great Britain. It was generally accepted that young women would teach for a few years and then get married, but there were some teachers who remained unmarried "spinsters." These unmarried women, like Madge Brigson, the narrator of Ruth Adam's novel I'm Not Complaining (1938), were seen as somehow unnatural in a society that prized marriage and childbearing, and looked askance at independent working women.

This attitude can be seen in the opening pages of Adam's novel, in which Mrs. Hunt, the mother of a pack of ragged children in Miss Brigson's charity school, comes in to complain about the treatment of one of her sons. Mrs. Hunt calls the teachers "a lot of old maids [who] couldn't be expected to feel the same about children as them who had borne and brought [them] up." She says it's a disgrace that teachers collect "eight pounds a week for a soft job if ever there was one."

Like Barbara Pym's Miss Lathbury, Miss Brigson comments on the spinsterish propensity to meet every crisis with a cup of tea, but otherwise Miss Brigson is a breed apart from Pym's compliant, churchgoing spinsters. Madge is sharp-tongued and unsentimental. She's an excellent teacher, concerned for the welfare of children, but without sentimentalizing them. She's not without strong prejudices that occasionally, sometimes even tragically, blind her to the moral complexities of a situation. She worries about her future, without prospect of marriage, but chafes against the expectation that women must settle down to husbands and families or be considered defective.

In one nightmarish scene, Madge, while waiting for a tram, finds herself caught up in a clash between unemployed workers and the police. She finds herself carried along by visceral excitement and fear, but without conviction, unable to escape the momentum of events. Despite her often cutting remarks and her pose of ironic detachment, Madge isn't quite grounded. She isn't quite prepared to make her own way in life. She hasn't been able to accept herself for who she is. In her work, she's surrounded by characters whose convictions, for better or worse, are stronger and more vivid than her own: attractive man-hungry, social climbing Jenny; the ardent Communist Miss Simpson; the young curate, Mr. Gregory, whose earnestness makes him an easy target for Madge's sarcasm.

As Janet Morgan says in her introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition of the novel, Adam's books "are full of people who change their opinions, or people with fixed opinions who cause chaos thereby; of conflicts between two courses of action that both seem just; of the damage the well-intentioned can do to the weak—especially children." Life is a moral minefield, full of the potential for false moves and unintended consequences. Even our attempts to do the right thing can blow up in our faces. It's sometimes hard to know what to believe in, easier and safer to believe strongly in nothing at all. Sometimes the hardest thing, as Madge realizes, is to believe in yourself.

Monday, August 18, 2008


"It is exasperating, really, teaching other people bridge," says the narrator in Ruth Adam's 1938 novel, I'm Not Complaining. "You cannot get away from the idea that they are being stupid on purpose." This summer, after a hiatus of about a decade, I took up bridge again—briefly. We had bridge-playing friends visiting us for a few days—one of them, Jhumku, a former tournament champion with an encyclopedic knowledge of the nuances of bidding. The other players were Clara and Jhumku's fourteen-year old daughter, Sara. Sara, who was my partner for the first few tentative hands, was amazed at the slowness with which I arranged my cards and counted points. She couldn't quite believe that I was really that slow. She thought I must be being stupid on purpose.

After ending up (quite appropriately) as the "dummy" for several hands, I finally had an opportunity to play a hand, and successfully made a contract of four spades. Thank goodness. In 1929, a housewife in Kansas City shot her husband to death for failing to make a four-spade contract. This is one of the fascinating things I learned from an essay on "the rise and fall of contract bridge" in The New Yorker (September 17, 2007). Contract bridge was a creation of the 1920s—it was invented on the evening of October 31, 1925 on a cruise ship en route from Los Angeles to Havana—and its popularity reached its peak during the Eisenhower administration. Ike himself was an avid player. Bridge expert Charles Goren's encyclopedic Goren's Bridge Complete went through six editions between 1942 and 1963. Goren, who was spurred to perfect his game when a college girlfriend laughed at his poor play, was earning $150,000 a year from bridge in the late 1950s (over a million in 2007 dollars), and by 1958 his bridge books had sold over 3.5 million copies in the United States alone. ABC even aired a television program, Championship Bridge with Charles Goren, from 1959 to 1964. Then, like the novels of Barbara Pym, bridge became passé. These days, as Edward McPherson observes in The Backwash Squeeze & Other Improbable Feats: A Newcomer's Journey Into the World of Bridge (HarperCollins 2007), most regular players are older than the game itself.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Late Bloomers

Kalm's lobelia, named for the Swedish naturalist Peter (or Pehr) Kalm, who traveled through North America in the late 1740s.

In both 2005 and 2006, according to my notes, the fringed gentians were blooming on the island on the 12th of August. This year, the gentians were still sealed in their tight little buds. Back in mid-July, low calamint was blooming on the shore, but there was no sign of the Kalm's lobelia (Lobelia kalmii) or purple gerardia (or purple false foxglove, Agalinis purpurea) that are usually so plentiful on the island in the high summer. When we returned to the island in mid-August, both the lobelia and the false foxglove were blooming in profusion. Better late than never.

Listening Journal: "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid"

Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Read by the author. Available at the Northfield Public Library.

On long car trips, like the thousand-mile round trip to the eastern Upper Peninsula, the boys generally subside into a kind of iPod- and Gameboy-induced suspended animation. While Clara's driving, I sleep or daydream or wonder what on earth people do in places like Withee, Wisconsin, or Naubinway, Michigan. We seldom stop except for purposes of refueling or peeing, although I once stopped to read an historical marker about the Wisconsin state soil, Antigo Silt Loam, outside the actual town of Antigo. (Click the link and, if you have Windows Media Player, you can hear Antigo third and fourth graders singing the Antigo Silt Loam Song.) Occasionally, on very long trips, we listen to a humorous audiobook. On a trip to Vermont (a nearly 3,000 mile round trip) a few years ago, we listened to David Sedaris, and nearly drove off the New York State Thruway because we were laughing so hard.

This time, we listened to Bill Bryson's memoir of his childhood in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950s. The book is nostalgic, funny, and perfect for a long road trip. A few moments were drive-off-the-road funny, as when Bryson tells about the "toidy jar" his mother kept for his emergency use under the kitchen sink. Bryson fills the book with interesting facts about America in the 1950s, and remembers vividly the peculiarly fruitful quality of childhood boredom in those days before iPods and video games. He also captures the excitement and uncertainty of growing up at the dawn of the nuclear age. The 1950s was the golden age of the comic book, and Bryson occasionally imagines himself as a young superhero with "thundervision," with which he vaporizes irritating morons. The conceit gives the book its title, but it isn't really central to the narrative. What is central is the imaginative quality of childhood, and the book balances nicely between a childhood sense of fantasy and wonder and a grown-up sense of nostalgia.

Most of all, Bryson's book is about Des Moines—or rather, about the uniqueness of each American hometown before the big box homogenization of the American landscape. Des Moines was a place of downtown movie palaces, homegrown department stores, a locally-owned newspaper. Beneath the rollicking humor is an elegy for the unique American downtown, before it was gutted by chain stores and suburban malls and the culture of the automobile. That elegaic, slightly pained tone will be familiar to readers of Bryson's book on England, Notes from a Small Island, in which he similarly bemoans the de-quainting of his adopted homeland. Bryson would, I think, be pleased that in Wisconsin there are still children who sing about the local soil.

Bryson reads well, although it's amusing to hear him lapse into Britishisms (for example, saying "jacket potatoes" instead of "baked potatoes," or rounding off questions with a distinctly English inflection) while talking about Midwestern America in the 1950s. There is some swearing, and (near the end of the book) quite a bit of smoking and drinking (and theft) of cheap beer.

I was born at the tail end of the baby boom, and grew up within the orbit of a small city (Ithaca, New York) with its own downtown movie palaces (the State, the Ithaca, the Strand), its own locally-grown downtown department store (Rothschild's), its own unique middle American charm. Although Bill Bryson had his own unique Midwestern childhood, his story was wonderfully evocative of my own. Like all good writing, it's specific but universal. It becomes a shared experience. I was there. And, setting aside their Gameboys and iPods for a few hours, so were my boys.

Bonus link: The Antigo Silt Loam Song

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Closing Up

August full moon over Wilderness Bay.

My first published piece of writing, other than naive youthful letters to the editor of the Ithaca Journal and an obscure scholarly article on Vergil's Ninth Eclogue, was a short story in Lake Superior Magazine called "Closing Up." It was about closing up a summer cabin up north. Our family just returned from our second trip up north this summer: two days in the car (approximately a thousand miles total), one day of summer fun, and a day of intensive closing up. Hoisting up the motorboat, "taking out the water" (i.e., draining and winterizing the plumbing), nailing up shutters, scrubbing down the kitchen, putting away the canoes and sailboats, etc. Things went fairly smoothly, with only a few glitches. We didn't have enough crank case oil for the outboard motor. A box (containing, among other things, my prescription allergy medication) got put into my mother-in-law's car (heading for Ohio) instead of our car. Other than that, it was great to have one more up north experience in 2008. Last night, we grilled over an open fire on the south shore, looking out toward Mackinac Island. This morning, we were up at 6:00 (eastern time) to finish the closing. Now the summer is over.

omnia fert aetas, animum quoque. saepe ego longos
cantando puerum memini me condere soles...

Time takes all we have away from us;
I remember when I was a boy I used to sing
Every long day of summer down to darkness...

Vergil, Eclogue IX (translated by David Ferry)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Reading Journal: "Excellent Women"

Barbara Pym, Excellent Women (Virago Modern Classics 2008). With an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith. Originally published 1952. 288 pp. This edition is available only from Waterstone's booksellers in Great Britain. A Penguin edition is currently available in the United States.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, English novelist Barbara Pym (1913-1980) published a handful of wonderfully sensitive, observant, and gently humorous novels, beginning with Some Tame Gazelle in 1950. That book set the tone for those that followed: the main characters were worthy spinsters, active in their church, attentive to the clergy, subsisting on tea and cauliflower cheese and hot milky drinks. Excellent women—prim and superbly capable in their own rather narrow spheres. When they do marry, they marry academics and assist their husbands with the preparation of the indices for their scholarly books.

One of my favorite Pym characters is Dulcie Mainwaring, in No Fond Return of Love (1961), who is a spinster and a compiler of scholarly indices. While at an academic conference, she attends a church service and finds her thoughts wandering:
The lay reader gave a short address. He tried to show how all work can be done to the Glory of God, even making an index, correcting a proof, or compiling an accurate bibliography. His small congregation heard him say, almost with disappointment, that those who do such work have perhaps less opportunity of actually doing evil than those who write novels and plays or work for films or television.

But there is more satisfaction is scrubbing a floor or digging a garden, Dulcie thought. One seems nearer to the heart of things doing menial tasks than in making the most perfect index. Again her thoughts wandered to her home and all that needed to be done there, and she began to wonder why she had come to the conference when she had so many better ways of occupying her time.
This is vintage Barbara Pym: a churchgoing spinster on the margins of the academic world, finding herself grounded in the ordinary, everyday tasks of homemaking.

The same year that No Fond Return of Love was published, Mark Schorer published his massive biography of Sinclair Lewis. In the acknowledgments at the front of the book, he writes:
Finally, a book such as this almost always involves a few people whose faithful efforts put them somewhere beyond the proprieties of gratitute; for better or worse for them, they become, if they have not already been, part of oneself. I name three: Ann Goolsby, Joan Warmbrunn, and Ruth Page Schorer, the last of whom, in the long course of it, took a degree in what is called “library science,” the more effectively to help me. W. B. Yeats wrote:

Though Pedantry denies,
It’s plain the Bible means
That Solomon grew wise
While talking with his queens.

Charming Yeats! If I had more such women as have helped me with this book or more time than the time that I will have with one of them, even I might hope to become moderately wise.
I imagine Ruth Page Schorer as one the indispensable women whom Barbara Pym brings so marvelously to life in her novels. Even the condescending quotation marks around "library science" and the quotation from Yeats seem like Pym touches: the men in her novels think much of themselves, but they would be lost without their excellent women.

After the publication of No Fond Return of Love in 1961, the world seemed to leave Barbara Pym behind. The next novel she wrote, An Unsuitable Attachment, was rejected by her publisher as too old-fashioned. (It was published posthumously in 1982.) Pym's scrupulous, churchgoing spinsters seemed out of place in the world of women's liberation. Then, in the late 1970s, the poet Philip Larkin and the scholar Lord David Cecil wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that Barbara Pym was the most underrated writer of the century. Suddenly, everyone wanted to read her again.

Excellent Women (1952) was her second published novel, and one of her best known. The narrator, thirtysomething spinster Mildred Lathbury, is one of Pym's finest creations: prim, sensible and devout, but wonderfully observant and self-aware. She is a clergyman's daughter, but unlike the kind of unfulfilled Victorian specimen in a F.M. Mayor's The Rector's Daughter (1924). The plot of Pym's novel is slight, but the pleasure of the book is in spending time with Miss Lathbury as she lives her "full life" of church jumble sales and pots of tea, indispensable to everyone around her.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Reading Journal: "Life As It Is"

William F. Loomis, Life As It Is: Biology for the Public Sphere (University of California Press, 2008). 233pp. + references and index. $24.95. Available from Amazon or special order from your local bookseller.

William Loomis is a biologist at UC San Diego. Much of his research seems to have been on the microscopic soil bacterium Dictyostelium. Although the bacterium is small and simple, it shares genetic material with all other life on the planet, including humans. This is the first lesson of Loomis's book: all life on Earth is related through a common ancestor. All of the marvelous diversity of life on the planet has arisen through divergent evolution from a set of ancient archaebacteria. Human beings consider themselves special, but biology reveals that we share much—genes, biological processes, anatomical structures, behaviors—with other forms of life. Even Dictyostelium will group together, cooperate, exhibit altruistic behavior. Humans are certainly complex, but we do not stand apart from the rest of nature.

In the course of a relatively short book, Loomis explores hot-button issues like abortion, stem cell research, genetic engineering, euthanasia, and cloning from a biologist's point of view. He begins by asking the basic question: what is life? He argues cogently for the importance of stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. Given the increasing availability of prenatal genetic screening for inherited diseases and birth defects, he argues that abortion is a more humane option than bringing a child into the world who will suffer a much diminished existence. He also argues that the availability of such genetic screening will drive the need for universal health care, as private insurance companies come to use the results of genetic screening to deny coverage. He also argues quite passionately that population growth is a much more pressing problem even than global warming. By some estimates, the planet is already well past its carrying capacity. The planet's resources are being stretched beyond their ability to sustain life. A catastrophe could be on the horizon. Much of the book is grounded in this discussion of the intersection between science and policy.

The book is thoroughly fascinating. Unfortunately, the writing tends to veer sharply from a tone that is almost condescending in its simplicity ("Life is everywhere—in the air, on the soil, in the oceans. Birds fly, mammals run, fish swim, plants grow tall") to a density of scientific detail that seems to require at least an undergraduate degree in biology ("Likewise, the nucleoside bases that are the monomer precursors of RNA and DNA are made by the action of sunlight on certain minerals"). I found one of the most enjoyable chapters to be the one on "selfishness and cooperativity," which ventured into the realm of social science with discussions of the Prisoner's Dilemma and the "tragedy of the commons." Perhaps because Loomis here was writing outside of his own area of expertise, he never lost me in a labyrinth of specialist jargon.

This made me wonder about the book's intended audience. A general educated audience? Policy makers? Fellow biologists? The blurbs on the back cover were all from biologists, but the material in the book is important and timely, and should reach a wider audience. Perhaps a non-specialist editor was needed to reign Loomis in when he started tossing around jargon without slowing down to explain.

I recommend Loomis's book, but you may want to take brush up on your biology and biochemistry first to get the full effect.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Life on the Mississippi

Downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, from Harriet Island Regional Park.

"St. Paul is a wonderful town," Mark Twain says, in Life on the Mississippi. In 1882, he says, the population of the city was 71,000. Nearly a thousand new houses had been built in the first three-quarters of the year. In the previous year, the city had taken in $52 million dollars in trade revenues. That's over a billion dollars in 2007 dollars. St. Paul was also, in 1882, "a land of libraries and schools," with three public libraries containing over 40,000 books. More than $70,000 ($1.5 million in 2007 dollars) was spent annually on teacher's salaries. Even in 1882, Mark Twain was remarking on the Minnesota Miracle.

St. Paul (Lower Landing) in the late 1800s. Minnesota Historical Society photo.

In 2008, Minnesota's public schools are facing a combined $130 million budget shortfall for the coming school year. The economy is slumping. As we drove into the city, we passed a sign offering information about home foreclosures. But the city of St. Paul itself was spotless for the upcoming Republican National Convention. There was a huge red sign, with an elephant rampant, on the front of the Xcel Energy Center. Across the street, a huge circus tent had been erected for Fox News. We headed down Kellogg Blvd. to the Wabasha St. bridge, where we saw the first of the drunken Irishmen who, according to former governor Jesse Ventura, laid out the streets of St. Paul. The city was flooded with green for an Irish festival on Harriet Island.

The Jonathan Padelford returning from a cruise.

When we arrived at Harriet Island, we dodged the little Irish step dancers in their fake curls and made our way to the Padelford Riverboat Company dock. Harriet Island, incidentally, is no longer an island. The channel was filled and it was connected to the mainland in the early 1950s. The island was originally given to the city of St. Paul in the early 1900s, and was named after Minnesota's first public school teacher, Harriet Bishop, who died in 1883 (a year after Mark Twain's visit).

The Mississippi River, just south of St. Paul, as seen from the riverboat.

The Jonathan Padelford, built in 1970, is owned by the Padelford Riverboat Company, which started offering riverboat rides on the Mississippi in 1969. The ride, from Harriet Island to within view of Fort Snelling, takes about two hours. It's a smooth, gentle ride, with none of the danger of boiler explosion that shortened the lives of so many riverboat passengers and crew (including Mark Twain's younger brother) in the 1800s. The river, in early August, was wide and placid. There were stretches of river where it's possible to forget that a modern city of 275,000 people lies just around the bend.

Bald eagles overlooking the Mississippi River, near St. Paul. Penny's new digiscoping technique would have come in handy here. Click to enlarge.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Reading Journal: "The Lying Days"

Though the leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.
—W.B. Yeats

The Lying Days (1953), the first novel by Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer, opens with an act of defiance. The narrator, Helen Shaw, refuses to join her parents on an outing—a social gathering of the middle-class families of white officials on a South African gold mine. Instead, Helen, who is eight or nine, wanders off into the native township outside the Mine compound, and gets her first glimpse of the lives of black South Africans. In the end, though, Helen wanders back to her parents. This first episode sets the stage for the rest of the the novel, a brilliantly written coming-of-age narrative in which Helen grows in political awareness and feels herself stretched thin between her family's middle-class white values and the pull of bohemianism and dissent. As South Africa descends deeper into apartheid after the election of a Nationalist government in 1948, Helen's position becomes increasingly untenable—her personal struggle to hold onto her identity reflects the struggle of a South Africa divided against itself. The miracle of the novel is that Gordimer keeps Helen's story so firmly grounded in her personal relationships—with her parents, her friends, her lover—that it never becomes a simple statement of protest against the regime of apartheid. It remains a rich personal narrative about growing up, about youthful rebellion, about the difficulty of holding onto ideals and of really knowing other people.

The writing is beautiful and complex, full of marvelous descriptive passages and occasional sentences in which the syntax seems to strain to carry the full weight of Gordimer's thought.

Early in the novel, Gordimer writes beautifully about the richness and vividness of imagination in childhood:
It is amazing on how little reality one can live when one is very young. It is only when one is beginning to approach maturity that achievement and possession have to be concrete in the hand to create each day; when you are young a whole livable present, elastic in its very tenuousness, impervious in its very independence of fact, spring up enveloping from a hint, a memory, an idea from a book. On this slender connection, like a tube of oxygen which feeds a man while he moves in an atmosphere not his own, it is possible to move and breathe as if your feet were on the ground.

As she grows older, Helen finds it difficult to imagine the lives of others, especially of her friend Mary, a black student she meets at the University. Taking the train home from Johannesburg one hot afternoon, she tries to imagine Mary's life, and realizes she is a stranger in her own land:
There was no way of knowing, no way of knowing. And sitting in the physical reality of the heat that tacked my mind down to consciousness of every part of my body, sweating or touching in discomfort against the encumbrance of cloth, I had an almost physical sensation of being a stranger in what I had always taken unthinkingly as the familiarity of home. I felt myself among strangers: the Africans, whose language in my ears had been like the barking of dogs or the cries of birds.

And this feeling seemed to transmute itself (perhaps by a trick of the heat, altering the very sensibility of my skin) to the feeling Mary must have, trying to oppose the abstract concepts of her books against the overwhelming physical life crowding against her. What a stranger it must make of her. A stranger to herself.

Estrangement is a theme that runs throughout the book. Imagination, so real and vivid in childhood, fails against the hard realities of adult life. In a sense, Gordimer seems to be saying, apartheid is an immense and tragic failure of the imagination: a failure to imagine ourselves into the skins and lives of others. But even imagination is not enough without the personal and political will to translate imagination into reality.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Different World

Our older son returned on Monday from a First UCC mission trip to Alamosa, Colorado, to work on Habitat for Humanity projects (Will learned stuccoing) and volunteer in the La Puente shelter. The group also visited a mushroom farm that employs migrant workers from Central and South America. Will reports getting evasive answers to questions about wages and benefits for the workers. In addition to being exposed to a different world of homelessness and poverty, Will was exposed to an entirely different landscape. In the course of a single week, he went from damp, green landscape of England to the desert landscape of southern Colorado. This photograph was taken by Daniel Mueller, a talented young photographer who also participated on the trip. That's Will on right.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Musical Crush of the Week: Elin Manahan Thomas

Gabriel Fauré, Pie Jesu, from the

I heard Elin Manahan Thomas performing live with The Sixteen at Tewkesbury Abbey in March 2007. She supplied the ethereal high Cs in the Allegri Miserere. She has one of the purest, loveliest soprano voices I have heard in a long time. Her debut solo album is gorgeous. This video clip doesn't do justice to her sublime voice. For more audio clips from the CD, go her her website. A small sample may be enough to convince you to shell out $45.99 for the entire import CD. Meanwhile, her recording of the Fauré Requiem, with Harry Christophers, The Sixteen, and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, is now available. I've just ordered a copy.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Reading Locally

Back in June, Ross Currier, LocallyGrown blogger and executive director of the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation, blogged about the importance of shopping locally for books. He pointed out that, if a particular book isn't in stock, the local bookstores can quickly and easily special order a copy. So far in 2008, I've read twenty four books (including the two books I'm currently reading). Seven of those books were purchased at Monkey See, Monkey Read. Six were purchased at River City Books, including one from the discount tables and two special orders. Three were sent to me by friends on LibraryThing who had duplicate copies. Three came from the shelves Up North. One each came from the hospital auxiliary book sale, Carleton's Interlibrary Loan, the historical society in Oberlin, and Amazon Marketplace. One was a Christmas gift. The final tally:

14 books purchased locally
10 books obtained elsewhere

Perhaps the most significant statistic: thirteen books purchased at local bookstores, one book ordered from Amazon. My number one source for reading material is Jerry Bilek's shop, Monkey See, Monkey Read.

This week, friends of ours, visiting Northfield for the first time from Kansas City, ducked into Jerry's shop to refuel their two daughters. Those girls run on books. They picked out half a dozen young adult books (about a day's supply) and brought them to the counter. Jerry told them that if they bought eight, they could have one free. They chose two more books, and Jerry gave them the most expensive one free. They were astonished. They had never been in such an amazing place in their lives.

We met them outside the shop, and stood for a while talking next to Jerry's Africabikes—another thing that makes his shop so special. Northfield, despite the upheaval of Fifth Street between Water and Division, was all dressed up for the America in Bloom judges. A few steps away down Division Street, folks were enjoying coffee at the sidewalk tables outside the HideAway. Mayoral candidate Mary Rossing was watering the hanging baskets outside her shop, Present Perfect. Our friends were still glowing from a visit to McKnight Prairie, and happily anticipating an evening of Shakespeare in the park.

"You are so lucky to live here," they told us.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Reading Journal: "What Hath God Wrought"

Daniel Walker Howe: What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford 2007). 855 pages + Bibliographical Essay. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. In brief: highly recommended as a well-written, compulsively readable, politically moderate general history of the period.

The years from 1815 to 1848—from Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans to the end of the Mexican War—is often referred to as the "Age of Jackson." It was an age, according to historians like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., when democracy expanded to include the common man. In "Jacksonian Democracy" were found the origins of modern political liberalism. Jackson, especially in his opposition to the national bank and soft money, championed the common man against the elite special interests who controlled credit and capital.

Significantly, however, historian Daniel Walker Howe dedicates his book to the memory of Jackson's great political rival, John Quincy Adams.

While Jackson sought to limit the size and scope of the federal government, Adams and the Whig Party advocated an ambitious plan of federally-sponsored internal improvements, from roads to public schools, that became known as "the American System." The Whigs wanted to put government to work for the moral and material improvement of all Americans. The Democrats, under Jackson and his successors, increasingly became the party of white supremacy and the Southern slave power. They opposed federally-sponsored public works because they were afraid that any expansion of federal power would threaten the South's "peculiar institution." It was a slippery slope from building interstate highways to abolishing slavery.

Although the Jacksonian Democrats opposed the expansion of federal power, they actively promoted the expansion of American territory. It was Jackson who instigated the brutal program of Indian Removal that cleared much of the South—from Georgia and Florida westward—for white settlement. The infamous Trail of Tears took place under his hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren. Under Jackson's protegé, James K. Polk, the United States wrested vast territory—including much of Texas and all of New Mexico and California—from Mexico. This rapid territorial expansion raised the divisive issue of whether slavery should be extended to the new territories.

The stories of Jackson and Polk begin to seem strangely familiar: an insistence on limited government but virtually unlimited executive power, egregious violations of civil liberty (Howe writes that "the refusal of the Post Office [under Jackson] to deliver abolitionist mail to the South may well represent the largest peacetime violation of civil liberty in U.S. history"), politicization of the federal bureaucracy, corrupt and incompetent federal contractors, retribution against responsible officials who placed their duty to the Constitution above their loyalty to the President, and major wars fought on false pretenses and financed with irresponsible borrowing rather than with tax increases. None of this, unfortunately, is new, and while Howe never draws explicit parallels with current events, but he makes it easy for readers to draw those parallels for themselves.

The American System of Whigs like John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay sought to draw the Union together in a system of roads, public schools, and other public projects, while at the same time stimulating economic development. For Howe, improvements in transportation (canals, steamships and railroads) and communications (telegraph) are the defining features of the period. These were things that tied the nation together in a vast network of rails and wires, while at the same time facilitating economic development: bringing goods to market faster, spreading financial news faster, helping capital to flow across the continent. Howe suggests that if Henry Clay, the chief architect of the American System, had won the Presidency in 1844 instead of Polk, the Civil War might have been avoided. Had American territorial expansion not taken place as the result of Polk's Mexican War, the deepening sectional conflict over the expansion of slavery might have been avoided. A Whig program of "economic diversification" in the South might have reduced the region's dependence on slave labor, and brought about peaceful and gradual emancipation.

The fate of the nation can hang upon a single Presidential election. Cast your vote wisely this November.

Additional Reading: Harvard historian Jill Lepore reviews Howe's book in the New Yorker, placing it its larger historiographical context, especially as a response to Charles Sellers' The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (1991).

Up North Scenes

Sailing and kayaking on Wilderness Bay

Improvement Projects


(Fifteen around the dining room table)


New Poem: "Phrasebook"

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