Monday, September 29, 2008

Unwritten Novels, Volume I

Editor's Note: Here on my hard drive, I have a whole folder bursting with files that contain the beginnings of novels and stories that were never written. Every now and then, I'll open a file, like an antique perfume bottle, and attempt to inhale the scent of long-evaporated inspiration. What does one do with all of this aborted fiction? Here's all that was ever written of a novel narrated by a boy who discovers that he's a fairy. At an unnamed Midwestern liberal arts college in the early 1980s, the boy joins a student organization for fairies...

The four of us—Mona, Siobhan, Natalie, and I—gathered every Saturday morning in one of the meeting rooms in the student union. There were chairs pushed up against the blue-gray walls, but we preferred to sit on cushions on the floor. Outside the door was a hand-written sign that said COLLEGE FAIRY CIRCLE SATURDAY 9:00 AM.

“We’re not really a circle,” Natalie said. “We’re more of a trapezoid.”

“How many fairies does it take to make a circle?” Siobhan asked.

“Or screw in a lightbulb?” Natalie said.

“So that’s how lightbulbs work,” I said. “There are fairies screwing inside.”

Siobhan spread open her notebook, uncapped her pen, and said, “Okay, how are we doing this week? Has anyone granted any wishes?”

The question was met with silence.

“Okay,” Siobhan said. “I’ll just put down No Wishes Granted this week.”

“I have an idea,” Natalie said. “You know how the Reproductive Rights Coop has a bake sale and condom distribution outside the mail room every week? Why don’t we set up a table and grant people’s wishes?”

“You know what will happen,” Mona said. “You’ll get all sorts of selfish wishes. I wish for an A on my calculus test. I wish that girl in my French class would sleep with me. Or else wishes you can’t possibly grant. People wishing for the end of apartheid in South Africa or the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

“Every wish is either too selfish or too altruistic for you,” Natalie said.

“The human race isn’t ready to have its wishes granted,” Mona said.

“So what you’re basically saying is that as fairies, we’re useless.”

“Maybe we should put more of an effort into being human beings,” Mona said.

“You’ll never succeed as a fairy if you don’t believe in yourself,” Siobhan said earnestly.

“Thank you, Tinkerbell,” Mona said.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

SPCO, with Guest Soloist the Union Pacific Railroad

We recently received ticket offers in the mail from both the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. The Minnesota Orchestra excitedly announced a special limited time ticket price of $49. Meanwhile, the SPCO quietly offered tickets starting at just $11.

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra isn't just an incredible bargain: it's one of the best and most exciting groups of classical musicians in the world. Their playing is brilliant, passionate, and quite often edge-of-your-seat exciting. Their concert programming is adventurous, challenging, sometimes perplexing, and always revelatory. Their concerts over the past year have given me a new appreciation of the music of Igor Stravinsky, have exposed me to unfamiliar and thought-provoking new music, and have shown me new sides of familiar favorites.

Last night, at Carleton's Skinner Chapel, the SPCO performed Stravinsky's Concerto for Strings in D, Mozart's Fifth Violin Concerto ("Turkish"), and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. The violin soloist and conductor was Nikolaj Znaider—a tall, dynamic, personable-seeming Dane whose performance of the Mozart was scintillating. In the Stravinsky, there was a surprise guest solo by a Union Pacific train whistle that brought a bemused smile to the face of associate concertmaster Ruggero Allifranchini. I have to admit that I spent most of the evening watching Allifranchini and concertmaster Stephen Copes, who play together as if they share a special psychic connection.

The special beauty of a live concert is the opportunity it gives the listener to see how the music moves through the orchestra, to experience the music as spatial as well as tonal relationships between instruments. In the Stravinsky, it was fascinating to watch the melody move from the violins to the cellos, like a musical shell game. And in the Beethoven, too, the musical ideas moved through the orchestra as if by mental telepathy. The seventh is my favorite Beethoven symphony. It shows what a genius can do with the even simplest musical building blocks: scales, single repeated notes. The opening of the colossally brilliant second movement sounds like the end of the world announced in Morse code by violas, cellos and basses. (My late father-in-law remembered it as the musical soundtrack to a combat training film he watched in boot camp before going off to fight in the Battle of the Bulge.) Brilliant and incredibly moving, and something I heard last night with fresh ears, a quickened pulse, and a new appreciation.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Banned Books Week 2008

Today is the first day of Banned Books Week 2008, brought to you by the American Library Association. Here's a link to help get the celebration started:

The Onion: "Nation's Teens Disappointed By Banned Books" (2000). "Desensitized to sex and violence from an early age, today's teens simply expect more out of their banned books than previous generations..."
I can confirm that my seventeen-year old son was "disappointed" by Mark Twain's frequently-challenged Huckleberry Finn, not because it was shockingly immoral, but because of its loose narrative structure.

One of my favorite banned books—one of my favorite books, period—is Kate O'Brien's The Land of Spices, which faced censorship by the Irish Censorship Board in 1941 because of a brief mention of homosexuality. The novel is a remarkable and moving story of a Catholic woman's journey from cold spiritual pride to graceful understanding. She comes to the understanding that "a soul should not take upon itself the impertinence of being frightened for another soul; that God is alone with each creature." O'Brien's characters struggle to confront their human frailty and live up to their strong Catholic faith. Often this struggle leads to the realization that God has made human beings complex creatures, and that we are meant to engage with that human complexity instead of shutting it off with cold theological abstractions.

That difficult spiritual journey toward an acceptance of the complexity and diversity of human experience was made by Rev. Howard Bess. Through conversations with a gay parishioner in his Baptist congregation, Rev. Bess came to accept that homosexuality was not a special sin, but simply part of God's miraculously diverse Creation. In the 1990s, Rev. Bess wrote a book titled Pastor, I am Gay about his journey toward this realization. The book caused an uproar in the small, evangelical-dominated community down the road from Rev. Bess's home—Wasilla, Alaska. The book was pulled from bookstores, and copies "disappeared" from the shelves of the Wasilla Public Library.

Rev. Bess is convinced that his book was on Mayor Sarah Palin's mind when she approached Wasilla's librarian and asked her opinion about banning books. The librarian expressed her firm opposition to censorship and commitment to the First Amendment right of free expression. Mayor Palin attempted to fire the librarian.

In another of her great novels, The Ante-Room, Kate O'Brien writes: "Our absurdity must be more of a wound to the Eternal, Agnes thought, than our guilt."

Friday, September 26, 2008


A fortuitous comment on an old post reminded me that I had never posted my photographs of the shipwreck up in Michigan. The shipwreck is off the shore of Birch Island, and here's what the owner of Birch Island has to say about the wreck:
It is known to be a canal schooner, and is nameless. When the original indian family in our area, the Osogwins, arrived in 1850 the schooner was already sunk. No one knows for sure when it happened. It was full of lumber and caught fire as it left Hessel. It went down where it rests now.
Clara has been spending summers on the island her entire life, and never knew about the shipwreck until about ten years ago, when it suddenly became a popular calm morning excursion by canoe to see the wreck. The wreck may be more visible now than in the past because of lower water levels and clearer water due to filtration by zebra mussels. It was difficult to take photographs in a drifting canoe, but this is what I came up with. The photographs don't give a sense of the great size of the wreck, or convey the slight spookiness of drifting over it in a canoe.

Clara steadying the canoe while I take pictures (our island is in the distance)

It's difficult to imagine that the wreck, before it sank more than a century and a half ago, may have looked something like this:

A mid-nineteenth century canal schooner on Lake Champlain
(source: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Northfield Invitational 2008

Connor and Peter
in the Boys' JV 5k

Will in the eccentric green shorts
in the Boys' JV 5k

Location: St. Olaf College

Learning in the Company of Friends

At 9:30 on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, I start to feel a little nervous. I pack up my books and walk from my office in the LDC (Language and Dining Center) to Goodsell Observatory, passing the prairie plantings and the bur oaks outside and the display case full of meteorite fragments inside. Down in the basement classroom, H. and J. are already there, arranging the chair desks into a circle, making sure there's a left-handed chair desk for M. My nerves relax as the other students arrive and complete the circle, and we sit down together to translate Sophocles. The students ask hard and important questions, make interesting comments, and frequently laugh. The president of the college, Rob Oden, likes to talk about a college education, particularly a Carleton education, as "learning in the company of friends." When I'm in class with my eight Greek students, I understand what he means.

As I was reading over the assignment before class yesterday, I came across a word that I hadn't previously parsed. I realized that it was an unusual form, and I spent several minutes—in consultation with Clara and Smyth's Greek Grammar—making sure I had it firmly in my grasp.

"I just know that J. is going to ask me about this one," I told Clara.

And I was right. J. did ask me. The word, incidentally, was a Greek participle that means "rejoicing together."

These students constantly push me and hold me accountable. The work we do together in class is a collaboration, as much a part of my own education as it is of theirs. I feel so much potential in those students that I feel more connected to my own. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, I always find two or three of my students in the classics library, digging into the lexicon together, helping each other through thickets of grammar. Often, I'll hear laughter. The sound of my students rejoicing together, learning in the company of friends.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Last Day of Summer

This morning, Clara and I walked in the Lower Arboretum, where the prairie is flecked with the autumnal purple and white of the asters. In the afternoon, I spent an hour in the Concert Hall at Carleton, listening to Hector Valdivia (violin) and Kathryn Ananda Owens (piano) in stirring performances of Mozart's Sonata in F, Bartók's Sonata no. 2, and Manuel de Falla's Seven Spanish Folksongs. Then I came home, ate a Zestar apple from Fireside Orchard, mowed the lawn for the first time since early July, and had a equinoctial supper of grilled burgers and late season sweet corn from the Bridgewater Produce Farm stand.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Big Woods State Park, Penultimate Day of Summer

Hidden Falls Trail

Hidden Falls
at the end of a dry summer

Debbie and Clara and the beginning of the fall colors

Friday, September 19, 2008

Goodsell Observatory, Part II

Meteorite (from Meteor Canyon, Arizona) in Goodsell Observatory.

When you enter Goodsell Observatory, the first thing you see is a large, drum-shaped wood and glass display case containing the Carleton meteorite collection. The core of the collection came to the college in the years 1942-1946, when Dr. Harvey H. Nininger (1887-1986) gave them to the college in lieu of his daughter Margaret's tuition. Imagine paying for your child's college tuition with rocks! But meteorites are not ordinary rocks—they're iron-rich extraterrestrial rocks, and they're valuable. For example, in 1958, Dr. Nininger sold 21% of his collection —1,200 specimens—to the British Museum for a total of $140,000. That's just under a million dollars in 2007 inflation-adjusted dollars.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Dr. Nininger amassed the nation's largest collections of meteorites, and wrote several books on the subject. His first book on meteorites was Our Stone-Pelted Planet (1933). During the 1940s and 40s, his collection was on display at the American Meteorite Museum, a roadside attraction along Route 66 near Winslow, Arizona, opposite Meteor Crater. The largest specimen in Carleton's collection, weighing over 250 pounds (see above), comes from Meteor Crater.

Here are some more views of Goodsell Observatory.

Front view (from the southeast)

From the east (enlarge to see the gibbous moon above the dome)

The old telescope in the south dome (above the main entrance pictured above)

Goodsell Observatory

From 9:50 until 11:00 this morning, I'll be in the basement classroom in this building, Carleton College's Goodsell Observatory, reading Sophocles with my class of eight wonderful students. It's a rewarding way to spend seventy minutes, and I find myself enjoying every moment spent in the classroom with Carleton students.

Goodsell Observatory is one of the oldest buildings on the Carleton College campus, and one of the most historically important. When it was built in 1887, Goodsell was equipped with a piece of German-made equipment known as a meridian circle, which was used for calculating sidereal time—that is, it enabled observers to calculate when certain stars would be visible in the night sky. But this time-keeping capability had an even more practical application. In the late nineteenth century, Goodsell Observatory became the official time-keeper for over 12,000 miles of railroad in the western United States. Time calculations made in Goodsell were wired to railroad companies throughout the west. In part because of the time service it provided, Carleton's little observatory was for many years the most important observatory west of the Mississippi.

William Wallace Payne

Beginning in 1881, Goodsell was also home to a U.S. Signal Corps station, which collected official weather data and transmitted it to the nation's capital. For a few years, Carleton's weather station was the official weather service for the state of Minnesota. Both the weather station and the time service were created and supervised by Prof. William Wallace Payne, Carleton's first professor of "mathematics and natural philosophy." According to the the book Selling the True Time: Nineteenth-Century Time-Keeping in America, Payne worked hard to protect Carleton's monopoly on railroad time-keeping from competition from commercial rivals like Western Union. The Carleton time service remained in business until December 1931.

History of Goodsell Observatory. Carleton College.
Weather History at Carleton. Carleton College.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Back to School

Today was the first day of classes at Carleton College. I taught my first Greek class since 1992 this morning. I started to prepare for Wednesday's class. I went to the college's opening convocation, featuring a terrific address by Deborah Bial, the president and founder of the Posse Foundation. Then I stuffed myself and drank beer at the president's reception. I'm too exhausted now to drive down to Faribault for Rep. Mindy Greiling's public hearing on the house education bill. It's been a full day.

Jazz Oboe

Jean-Luc Fillon, Oboa. Deuz Z/Nocturne 2003. Import available from Caiman.

In fifth grade, Will confidently and somewhat eccentrically announced that he wanted to play the oboe. Fifth grade is when children in Northfield start band in school, and while most of his friends were taking up saxophones and drums, Will stuck with the oboe. Throughout middle school, he sat in the band and doubled the flute part. The oboe is primarily a classical instrument, not traditionally associated with band music, and it wasn't until his teacher in England handed him a baroque oboe sonata that he realized what his instrument was made for. Soon he was beginning to explore the classical oboe repertoire, which includes a Bach concerto for violin and oboe, concertos by Cimarrosa and Mozart, and (one of my favorite pieces of chamber music) Robert Schumann's Three Romances for oboe and piano. When we returned to America last year, Will was recruited to play the oboe solo in a high school orchestra performance of the Bacchanale from Saint-Saens' Samson and Delilah. The piece is a classic oboe solo: sinuous, seductive, sophisticated, and a little dark. Here's the Bacchanale, fully choreographed. Notice the oboes in the introduction and in the solo beginning at about 1:56 (don't feel you need to listen to the entire piece).

In a sense, the Bacchanale is the first French piece for jazz oboe, bringing out the instrument's seductive swing and sophistication.

That sophisticated flavor comes out beautifully on the 2003 disc OBOA, featuring the French jazz oboist Jean-Luc Fillon. The oboe is not a traditional jazz instrument, and its sound can't be compared to more traditional jazz reeds like the clarinet and soprano (or sopranino) saxophone. To my ear, its tone is mellower and darker and less strident. Have a listen to a few excerpts, recorded live in 2004, with Fillon on oboe, João Paulo on piano, and Carlo Rizzo on tambourine.

This is French jazz, inspired as much by European traditions as by classic American jazz. There's a touch of bal-musette (think café accordionist), gypsy music, European classical music, and some influences from further east, including Sephardic folk music. The three musicians on this disc—French, Portuguese, and Italian—bring a sophisticated cosmopolitan feel to the music. The French have a fine tradition of bringing instruments out of the classical orchestra and adapting them to jazz—including violin (Stephane Grappelli and Jean-Luc Ponty) and recorder (Jean-François Rousson). The oboe—mellow, dark, and seductive—makes perfect sense as a jazz instrument.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tandoori Chicken

Tandoori chicken, cucumbers with ginger and soy sauce, coconut ginger basmati rice, chutney

Step 1 (jalapeño-ginger paste). In a food processor, chop 5 jalapeños, a 2-inch piece of ginger root (peeled), and 6 cloves of garlic into a coarse paste. Can be stored frozen and used for sheekh kabobs.

Step 2. Mix together 2 tablespoons of jalapeño-ginger paste, salt, pepper, 3 tablespoons of tandoori masala,* one small finely chopped onion, and 1 1/2 cups plain yogurt. Marinate chicken (I used one package of skinless/boneless chicken thighs) in yogurt mixture overnight.

Step 3. Grill chicken and serve with rice and chutney.

Thanks again to Jhumku Kohtz for the fabulous recipe!

*I used Kissan Tandoori Masala, which is available online.

Big Buzziness

Britain is facing an agricultural crisis this year as an unusually wet summer has contributed to a nearly catastrophic collapse of honeybee populations. The story was reported this morning on the program Broadcasting House on BBC Radio 4. As the Guardian newspaper reported in August, the nearly 30% of all British hives have been lost in 2008, due in part to bad weather conditions and to increased susceptibility to disease caused by environmental stress. This means not only a shortage of honey in the market—according the the Guardian report, market shelves will be bare of honey by Christmas—but also a crisis for fruit and vegetable farmers who rely on bees to pollinate their crops.

In 2006, a similar collapse struck the United States, which lost a quarter of its hives to what was called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). A variety of culprits—from global warming to genetically modified crops to increased cellphone use—were blamed for the collapse. In 2007, honey prices in the United States increased by 14% because of the loss of hives, and farmers were left scrambling—and paying much higher prices—to rent bee hives to pollinate their crops. (For a digest of news items about CCD in the United States, click here.)

Pollination by bees is an important environmental "service" that goes unaccounted for in calculations of gross domestic product, but contributes significantly to the health of the economy. In the UK, the government estimates that pollination contributes £165 million annually to the economy. In the United States, it was estimated in 2000 that pollination by bees contributed $15 billion annually to the GDP (source). Back in 1997, Janet Abramovitz contributed a chapter to the World Watch Institute's State of the World report, pointing out that wild pollinators, such as wild honeybees, pollinate 80% of the world's crop species. Shouldn't that essential contribution to agricultural production be included in economic calculations?

As an alternative to GDP, Abramovitz discusses the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which, in her words, "counts the positive contributions of unpaid household and community work...[and] subtracts for depletion of natural habitat, pollution costs, income distribution, and crime." Abramovitz goes on to argue for including, in addition, the economic value of the ecosystem—the income generated by natural "services" such as pollination—in indices of national wealth such as the GDP or GPI.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Atonality at the Ordway

Peter's first assignment in ninth grade art class was to copy Picasso's portrait of Igor Stravinsky. The catch was that it had to be copied upside down, and only an inch at a time. I thought of this last night as I listened to the opening piece on the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra program, Stravinsky's Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1959), one of the composer's late forays into twelve-tone serialism. Serialism tosses out many of the traditional features of classical music—tonality, melodic motifs, development of themes—and builds upon the basic unit of the chromatic scale: a series of twelve notes, including both the white and black keys on the piano. Within this series, or row, a note cannot be repeated until each of the other notes in the series has been played. Instead of being related to a hierarchy of pitch based on the tonic (the first note in a scale), the notes are related only to each other. The music is drawn an inch at a time, unrelated to a continuous line of tonality. The effect is oddly upside down: the focus is on the abstract technique, the series of lines that don't add up to a traditional melodic musical picture.

Perhaps it's easier to understand if you watch this video, in which 12-tone music is explained at the piano by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini (the video is also embedded in this article by Tommasini).

The result is a piece of music that—despite being based on an egalitarian distribution of notes—seems anarchic and random. It's music for the twentieth century, a time in which old hierarchical structures (including the structures of musical tonality) were breaking down and being replaced with new ideologies and puzzling new ways of looking at the world. In 1944, Time called Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of 12-tone music, "the Albert Einstein of music." Serialism was relativity made aural.

I have to admit that I was relieved to come to the piece that closed the first half of the concert, Haydn's Symphony No. 103 in E-Flat, known as the Drum Roll. The piece opens with a daring timpani roll, followed by ominous-sounding basses and cellos searching for a key before the music kicks into melodic drive. It was radical for 1795.

The concert also included a piece for piano and orchestra, Flying to Kahani (2005), by American composer Charles Wuorinen, and the Concerto in D for Strings (1947) by Stravinsky (from the composer's appealingly neoclassical middle period). The soloist on the Wuorinen and the Stravinsky Movements for Piano was Peter Serkin, and the conductor was Roberto Abbado.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Small World

Peter asked for clay.
All summer he built himself
little chairs, tables,
a drawbridge for his fort
in the backwoods, dreaming
of a bigger world
where he could build houses
big enough to live in,
big enough for everyone.
Happiness was a hammer
in his hand, saw and nails,
everything fitting together
snug and square. His
seven years had given him
strength and skill enough
to piece this much together.
He asked for clay,
and made himself a model
of the twin towers,
somewhere he has never been.
He made them, he said,
for remembering:
things small enough to hold,
like the small white pawns
taken from a board, the toy-sized
city of ghosts left standing
at the foot of his bed
while he sleeps,
while he sometimes dreams
of picking up his hammer,
and of what he would build.

Originally published in Black Bear Review 34 Spring 2002. Honorable Mention, 2001 Annual Poetry Competition. Copyright © 2002 by Rob Hardy.

Memo to the McCain Campaign

Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition, that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty, by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming, by an untruth, by an injustice. This increases the difficulties ten fold; and those who pursue these methods, get themselves so involved at length, that they can turn no way but their infamy becomes more exposed. It is of great importance to set a resolution, not to be shaken, never to tell an untruth. There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible; and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world's believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.
Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr (September 19, 1785)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Obama on Education

Cross-posted at Rob Hardy for School Board

Yesterday, Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama gave a speech on education in Dayton, Ohio. Dayton and Canton have seen both candidates often during this campaign; the two cities in Ohio are among the nation's fastest declining cities, as the economy stagnates and industrial jobs are shipped overseas. The candidates go to Dayton and Canton to talk about the economy, and although Obama's speech was billed as an education speech, it was really about the economy. Here's a sample of the speech:

But it’s not just that a world-class education is essential for workers to compete and win, it’s that an educated workforce is essential for America to compete and win. Without a workforce trained in math, science, and technology and the other skills of the 21st century, our companies will innovate less, our economy will grow less, and our nation will be less competitive. If we want to outcompete the world tomorrow, we must out-educate the world today.

The focus of the speech is on educating students to compete in a global economy. It's about educating for technological innovation and economic growth. It's about training a workforce.

I read through the speech, keeping track of how many times Obama uses certain key words, and came up with these interesting, but unsurprising results: he uses the word economy 9 times; compete 8 times; math 8 times; science 7 times; technology 5 times; skills 5 times; and engineering 2 times.

What is missing here? He mentions English only once, and his only reference to language is when he says that students must be "fluent in the digital language of the 21st century economy." No mention of foreign languages, or literature, or music, or art. He speaks three times about innovation, but never about creativity. Compete eight times, but never cooperate.

I agree wholeheartedly with Sen. Obama that American students should excel in math and science, but to be complete and well-rounded human beings, students should also be enthusiastic readers, they should have an appreciation of art and music and history, and their creativity should be nurtured. In a global community, Americans should make the effort, as students do in most other countries, to become fluent in a second language. Yes, our students should be prepared to enter (to use my high school guidance counselor's favorite phrase) "the world of work," but education should also nurture the human spirit. Students should be prepared to appreciate and to discern, as well as to earn.

On the subject of standardized testing, Obama said:

[D]on’t tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend most of the year preparing him to fill in a few bubbles on a standardized test. Let’s finally help our teachers and principals develop a curriculum and assessments that teach our kids to become more than just good test-takers. We need assessments that can improve achievement by including the kinds of research, scientific investigation, and problem-solving that our children will need to compete in a 21st century knowledge economy.

I appreciate his acknowledgment that there is more to education than successful test-taking, but again, I'm bothered by what's left out. Literature, art, music, history, foreign languages, physical education—none of these are included in the economic equation.

There's a principle in education sometimes called WYTIWYG: "what you test is what you get." When I was teaching Latin in a middle school in the 'burbs, I occasionally gave my students a few minutes at the end of class to get started on their Latin homework. I circulated through the classroom to give individual help to the students who needed it. I often found that students, when I wasn't looking, took out their math homework and started working on it.

"Why is it more important to use the time to work on math homework?" I asked.

"Because we're tested on it," one of my bright students said.

What you test is what you get.

This term I'm teaching Greek tragedy at Carleton. We're reading (in ancient Greek) Sophocles' Antigone. Ancient Greek has negligible economic value, but reading the Antigone has made me reflect on deep and enduring human problems, has focused and disciplined my mind, and has exposed me to a culture—that of fifth century Athens—illuminatingly different from my own. It has also made me reflect on the power and beauty of human language and the magnificent depth and breadth of human creativity.

Of all the marvels on earth, says Sophocles, there is nothing as marvelous as humanity.

Another playwright, Eugene Ionesco, said: "If one does not understand the usefulness of the useless and the uselessness of the useful, one cannot understand art. And a country where art is not understood is a country of slaves and robots.”

I can understand why Obama emphasized the economic utility of education in a speech delivered in struggling Dayton. We need useful skills in order to feed our families. But we also need the "useless" arts in order to feed our souls. And to keep ourselves from becoming slaves and robots.

Link: The prepared text of Obama's speech.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Guest Blogger: "Heads in the Sand"

Matthew Yglesias, Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats. Wiley 2008. 272 pp. Available at River City Books.

Reviewed by Clara Shaw Hardy

I bought Heads in the Sand—or HITS as we in the bloggy world call it—because I read Matt Yglesias' blog regularly and like it. He used to blog at the Atlantic, but has since moved over to Think Progress; he's a sensible voice, interesting on foreign policy but also on urban planning, transit, media analysis and much else of interest. His spelling is really lousy—I considered volunteering to proofread for him when I first started reading his blog—but remarkably I've been able to get past that (hopefully none of my students are reading this). I also thought my mother, a liberal internationalist if there ever was one, might like the book, and I was looking for a birthday present for her.

The subtitle of the book is How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats. The bulk of the book recounts, in depressing detail, the various reasons for which Democrats failed to mount any coherent opposition to the principles of Bush foreign policy in the wake of 9/11. This of course takes the reader through the fraught period in 2002 as it became increasingly clear that war with Iraq was on Bush's agenda and the way in which opposing voices were marginalized; through the 2004 presidential campaign, and Kerry's inability to articulate a competing vision for American foreign policy; through the Democratic victories in the 2006 election, followed by Bush's 2007 decision to escalate, rather than draw down, forces in Iraq. It is painful to relive these periods, and perhaps even more acutely painful to relive them just now, as another campaign is heating up. (In an epilogue he points out the dispiriting fact that even in the Democratic primary, ongoing as he was finishing the book, little substantive debate over foreign policy principles took place. The general election campaign hasn't been much better.) But the analysis is interesting and provocative. The book's basic accusation against Democrats is that they tended either to embrace the invasion (the "liberal hawks" like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman or Senator Joe Biden) or to try to duck questions of foreign policy altogether, and redirect debate to more traditional Democratic domestic issues. While many of the initial supporters of the war have since criticized the way in which it has been executed, none have tackled the philosophical issue of preventive war itself.

What Matt—I can't help it, I just think of him as Matt; he can call me Clara if he likes—supports is a return to liberal internationalist principles: strong international institutions supporting robust nonproliferation policies and careful diplomacy. What his book shows, almost in spite of itself, is how hard it is to sell this to the American people. He is clearly frustrated with Democrats who have run from the argument, but he offers no politically sexy terms in which to sell it. He admits that the "technical details that would lie at the heart of a liberal nonproliferation campaign are, frankly, dull—a political problem that must be admitted squarely." Yet he denies that liberal internationalism is a necessarily losing political proposition, and he's right that it hasn't really been tried since 2001. But my own memories of Bush's "permission slip" formulation in the 2004 debates—the way he seized on Kerry's point about needing international backing and turned it into the evidently damaging notion of a "global test"—leads me to think that these ideas are not easy to formulate in a politically attractive way.

I never read the Lakoff book on framing, but have just, in another context, revisited a 2000 New Yorker article on Frank Luntz's "word lab." Luntz is the Republican pollster who used focus groups to determine which words and phrases had the desired emotional effect (i.e. "death tax" rather than "estate tax"). The New Yorker piece (not available, unfortunately, in their online archive) reveals the delightful fact that words beginning with R ("resolve!" "robust!") or ending with "-ity" are particularly effective ("accountability" is good, but "responsibility" is a two-fer). Maybe we could get some Democratic pollsters running focus groups on new phrases to sell liberal internationalist foreign policy. Suggestions welcomed in the comments section. Points for words or phrases beginning with R and ending with "-ity."

Monday, September 8, 2008

Margaret Evans Huntington Club

In the year of the infamous Bank Raid (1876), Carleton's dean of women, Margaret Evans, gathered a group of female faculty and townswomen in her apartment in Gridley Hall (the old women's dormitory) for the the inaugural meeting of the Monday Club. The Monday Club was a women's literary (or "self-culture") club that began to meet regularly on Monday afternoons. An annual program of study was developed, and members took turns delivering papers to the group.

In the 1890s, for example, the Monday Club decided to spend four years reading Greek tragedy. Each month, the Northfield News included a report of the meeting. Here's an excerpt from the report from Saturday, February 20, 1897:
Mrs. Cooper's paper on Iphigenia as the typical Greek maiden was beautifully written and read. She represented Iphigenia as speaking, telling her own story as we learn it from the drama. Each paper was followed by informal discussion of the topics treated.
At the end of four years of studying Greek tragedy, one of the club members, Mrs. Emma Hitchcock, printed up a little booklet with excerpts from various tragedies and distributed them as Christmas gifts to the other members. A copy is still preserved in the Carleton College Archives.

Margaret Evans, the founder and president of the Monday Club, also became the first state president of the General Federation of Women's Clubs. In an address to the state annual meeting of the GFWC in 1895, Evans discussed the importance of the "literary culture" element of the women's clubs:
"I do not regret passing youth, " said an earnest woman, "but I do mourn my mental stagnation. My life is almost utterly without intellectual stimulus." So realizes many a woman in her home, and this realization has started many literary clubs. To enable women to cast off this stagnation, to quicken mental powers by deeper study and thinking, than could otherwise be hers, is the prime object in many clubs.
The Monday Club was a literary club, but its members were also involved in their community, especially in what Evans called "outdoor housekeeping"—the beautification of school grounds and public places, as well as of their own lawns and gardens. Women's clubs were also involved in helping to establish public libraries and vacation schools, and frequently discussed education and current events during their meetings. Margaret Evans was herself the first female member of the Northfield school board.

There were several women's clubs in Northfield in the late nineteenth century. In addition to the Monday Club, there were the Literary Gleaners, the Alpha Beta Phi Society, and the Pioneer Club. One other club, the Town and Country Club, maintained a club room in town so that farm wives would have a place to rest when their husbands came to town on business. Of those clubs that sprang to life in the late 1800s, only the Monday Club remains—although in 1924 it changed its name to the Margaret Evans Huntington Club, after its founder (who at the age of 79 had married a fellow Carleton professor, George Huntington).

This afternoon, the Margaret Evans Huntington Club gathered for its first meeting of the new academic year. As always, the club membership is a mix of faculty wives, retired faculty members, and townswomen. I had the great privilege to be invited as a guest to give the first paper of the new year. The title of my talk was "Out-of-Body Experiences: A Man Reading Women's Fiction." The text of my talk can be read here.

Many, many thanks to the members of the Virago Modern Classics group on LibraryThing who read and commented on a draft of this paper, and to the members of the Margaret Evans Huntington Club.

Note: For the centennial of the Northfield Public Library in 1998, I wrote a short play called The Monday Club that was performed at the Northfield Arts Guild. I believe a video of the play is still available at the public library.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Defeat of Jesse James Days 2008

No, it's not a gang of delegates to Republican National Convention hightailing it out of Minnesota; it's the 2008 Defeat of Jesse James Days parade. During Defeat of Jesse James Days, this modern James Gang stages reenactments of the unsuccessful raid on Northfield's First National Bank that took place 132 years ago today.

The Northfield High School Band
Peter's in front (right about the EL in NORTHFIELD on the banner) on trombone; Will is further back, temporarily trading in his oboe for a triangle.

Link: A journalist covering the RNC stops in Northfield to blog the Defeat of Jesse James Days.

Fauré's Requiem

This recent disc, recorded live in concert at London's Barbican Hall, brings together an unlikely pairing: Mozart's Vesperae solennes de confessore (K.339), composed in 1780, and Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, composed around 1887. A hundred years separate the two choral works, and they seem to come from two entirely different worlds. Mozart's piece perfectly evokes the gilded Baroque splendor of Salzburg Cathedral, for which it was written. It's full of pomp and ornamentation. Fauré's work, on the other hand, is delicate, intimate, meditative, impressionistic. But the pairing works brilliantly. The Mozart ends with a rousing Magnificat in the key of C Major that comes to rest on a solid C chord. After a moment of silence, the Fauré begins with a sustained D chord in the orchestra—the music has moved one full step up the scale, and from the bright key of C Major to the meditative key of D minor. The transition is lovely, and beautifully bridges the gap between the two musical worlds.

The highlight of the Mozart Vespers is the Laudate Dominum—one of those ethereally simple Mozart andantes—sung with perfect beauty and clarity by soprano Elin Manahan Thomas. She returns on the second half of the disc to sing the famous Pie Jesu movement of the Requiem. Her voice is pure and sweet and beautiful. But, for me, the highlights of the Fauré are the Offertoire—dark and intimate and searching—and the lighter and breezier Agnus Dei. The Offertoire features the rich and warm baritone of soloist Roderick Williams. Although the Requiem is a mass for the dead, the music is both comforting and sensual—its darker moments always resolve into sunlight. It concludes with the delicate In Paradisum that seems to float softly heavenward.

I went over to the piano and played a D minor scale: D-E-F-G-A-B flat-C-D. It sounded curiously unresolved, like it still had somewhere to go. Will attempted to explain to me the theory of harmonic and melodic minors, the subtonic, and the difference between ascending and descending minor scales. I heard, but I didn't understand. My reaction to music is on a more gut level. To me, D-minor seems to be reaching for something, reaching out of darkness toward light. It's the key of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Mozart's Requiem—pieces in which finality is leavened with aspiration and expectation.

The disc opens with Mozart's brief and perfect Ave Verum Corpus, perhaps as a nod to Camille Saint-Saens, who said of Fauré's Pie Jesu: "Just as Mozart's is the only Ave Verum Corpus, this is the only Pie Jesu." The sound quality throughout the disc is remarkable: both spacious and intimate as the music requires. The choir (The Sixteen) and the orchestra (The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields) are the best in Britain.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Early September Prairie

Cream Gentian (Gentiana alba)

Monarch and Blazing Star (Liatris)

Faribault Invitational 2008

Peter (in the maroon, gold and white) running in the boys' C race at the Faribault Invitational, at Alexander Park in Faribault.

The weather for the Faribault Invitational is traditionally sunny and hot. There's usually an ambulance on hand to treat runners who have collapsed from sunstroke or dehydration. Yesterday, the spectators were putting on fleeces and raising umbrellas as the temperature hovered in the low 60s and heavy gray clouds overspread the area and spattered rain on the JV runners who brought up the end of the meet. Highly ranked teams from Stillwater and White Bear Lake were on hand at the front end of every race, with Northfield's runners in a convivial pack somewhere in the middle. In the C race, Peter finished the 2 miles in 13:02, coming in 71st out of 171. Will ran in the last race of the afternoon, the boys' JV 5K, and was too wet and hungry at the end of the day to stay for the results.

The boys' JV 5K
along the Cannon River in Faribault

UPDATE. Will tied for seventh on his team and 71st overall (out of 186) with a time of 19:38.7. The Northfield boys' JV team is, for the most part, a bunch of pack animals. Seven members of the team finished within 15 seconds of each other. And note the weird coincidence that both Will and Peter finished 71st overall in their respective races.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Reading Journal: "Daphne"

Justine Picardie, Daphne. Bloomsbury 2008. 399 pp. Available at River City Books.

In the author photograph on the back of her 1969 novel, The House on the Strand, Daphne du Maurier sits at a desk, her face turned toward the camera but her eyes shifted to the left, avoiding the camera's direct gaze, looking at something hidden to the rest of us. Her mouth seems pinched and hard, as if she's holding back either anger or tears. On the desk, at her left elbow, is another of her books, Vanishing Cornwall.

Daphne du Maurier, 1969. Photograph by Tom Blau. From the dust jacket of The House on the Strand.

The House on the Strand
has an odd premise: the protagonist, living on the Cornish coast with his family, experiments with hallucinogenic drugs that allow him to travel back in time to 14th century Cornwall. As the novel progresses, his medieval life becomes more real to him than his life in the present. The presence of the past—the way in which the present sometimes seems to wear thin, allowing the past to bleed through—is a recurring theme in du Maurier's fiction. In her most famous novel, Rebecca, the title character is dead before the novel begins, but her palpable absence dominates the novel. "The past is still too close to us," the narrator says, in a passage that Justine Picardie uses as one of the epigraphs at the beginning of Daphne, her complex and ambitious new novel about Daphne du Maurier.

Daphne opens in 1957, as du Maurier is preparing to write a book about Branwell Brontë, the Brontë sisters' ne'er-do-well older brother. The novel shifts back and forth between this time frame and the present, in which a young graduate student becomes obsessed with reconstructing du Maurier's Brontë research—in particular, du Maurier's dealings with a shadowy Brontë scholar named J. Alexander Symington, who becomes one of the novel's most compelling characters.

All of the characters are haunted by the past, and pulled toward the unknowable voids of other lives. All of the characters feel the gravitational pull of fictional worlds, a pull that is both compelling and destructive. Branwell Brontë was never able to escape Angria, the fictional world that he created as a child with his more talented sisters. Symington destroys his eyesight and his career obsessing over Branwell's microscopic handwriting. Daphne's cousin, Peter Llewelyn Davies, seems fatally haunted by the fiction that his Uncle Jim (J.M. Barrie) created around his childhood: the story of Peter Pan. The characters traverse real landscapes—the Brontës' Haworth, du Maurier's Cornwall and London—but find themselves stepping off into the Neverland of the imagination: a step that can be both liberating and destructive.

The novel is a literary echo chamber, a hall of mirrors: the plots mirror and echo each other, gloss each other, haunt each other like ghosts. The novel is about the influence on our real lives, for good and bad, of reading and of immersing ourselves in fictional worlds. "The thing about her novels," says the young graduate student, on a visit to du Maurier's Cornwall, " is that you begin to feel you inhabit the places she describes; she gives so much detail, it's like walking into the landscape of someone else's mind."

The problem, then, is finding your way out again, into the changing landscape of your own life

Having finished Justine Picardie's fine and thought-provoking novel, I went back to the photograph of Daphne du Maurier with Vanishing Cornwall at her elbow. We want to follow her gaze, to see whatever it is that she sees as she looks away from the camera. We can only imagine. Whatever it was, it has vanished.

My own review of du Maurier's The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë
Justine Picardie's blog

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Kabobs, Take Two

Last night, I overcame my fear of cooking meatballs on the grill—I imagined them disintegrating and falling through the grill into the fire, accompanied by much profanity—and made real sheekh kabobs instead of Indian-spiced meat patties. Everything worked out just fine. Served with basmati rice, chutney, cucumber sauce, and a green salad.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A Gene for Monogamy

Breaking science news from the Washington Post (9/2/08): "Men are more likely to be devoted and loyal husbands when they lack a particular variant of a gene that influences brain activity, researchers announced yesterday -- the first time that science has shown a direct link between a man's genes and his aptitude for monogamy." Read more.

Abstinence Only

One of the main lessons of Mean Genes (reviewed below) is that human beings have primal urges that are not easily controlled by willpower alone. One of the most primal urges is the urge to have sex. That's what our genes want above all else: to be passed along. It's not surprising that, beginning in the teenage years, humans feel a powerful urge to copulate. Think about this: between the Neolithic Age (beginning about 10,000 years ago) and the end of the 18th century, the average life expectancy for humans was between 20 and 40 years (source). A sixteen-year old was already in middle age when she reached puberty (the average age of puberty was later in earlier centuries). So the phenomenon of teen pregnancy shouldn't be all that surprising. For our Neolithic ancestors, with a life expectancy of twenty, it was an urgent matter. And we still carry the genes of those precocious Stone Age parents.

In modern society, however, teenagers are, for the most part, not ready to become parents. For one thing, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that controls decision-making—is still developing in teenagers (source). And teenage pregnancy carries significant risks to both the mother and child. But that primal urge is still in us, and often overcomes our judgment and our self-control—especially when these qualities, as in teens, are still not fully developed. The Republican policy of "abstinence-only" sex education fails because it fails to recognize the nature of human beings and their powerful instinct to procreate. Abstinence is a fine ideal.* But an enlightened sex education policy should also recognize the reality of human weakness, and include full and accurate information about contraception.

The teen pregnancy rate steadily declined between 1991 and 2005. In 2006, the rate began to increase again (source). This during a period in which the government has insisted on "abstinence-only" sex education. In 2005, Hillary Clinton sponsored an amendment to a women’s health care bill that would “allocate $100 million for the prevention of unintended pregnancies.” The bill would have helped to fund family planning and educational programs to prevent unwanted pregnancies. John McCain voted against the bill. I fail to see the logic of those who oppose abortion, but at the same time oppose programs that would prevent unwanted pregnancies and reduce the number of abortions. I fail to see the logic of those who oppose abortion, but at the same time oppose providing access to safe and effective contraception. John McCain doesn’t even want to acknowledge that condoms can prevent the spread of AIDS.

And now McCain has provided us with a new poster child for his party's failed policy of abstinence-only sex education and its rejection of family planning: the daughter of his running mate, who is seventeen, unmarried, and five months pregnant.

Update from the Chicago Tribune. "Palin addressed teen pregnancy prevention in her 2006 run for governor, indicating on a questionnaire that she favored abstinence-until-marriage education over explicit sex education programs, school-based clinics and condom distribution in schools. The high school that Bristol Palin attended for part of last year, Wasilla High School, teaches abstinence in health class, its principal said." Read more...

*I abstained from sexual intercourse throughout my teen years, but I'm sure it was only through lack of a willing partner.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

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