Showing posts from March, 2008


In 1995, I was at home with a three year old and a one year old. Our lives were still full of sleepless nights, bottles, diapers, and Raffi videos. Potty training came slowly, and so did sleeping through the night, and it seemed that we would spend the rest of our lives yawning and changing diapers. We were still living in our small bungalow down the street from our current house; Clint, who lives there now, tells us that he still occasionally finds a piece of Lego in the house. I was learning to make bread in 1995, but I still didn't have much time for writing. I didn't start to get published for another two years.

In April, 168 people—including 19 children in day care—died in the Oklahoma City bombings. There was an ongoing war in Bosnia. The Atlanta Braves beat Cleveland in the World Series. But the impact of these horrific events was muted and blurred by sleep deprivation and a sense of the challenging but reassuring rhythm of ordinary life. There was comfort in da…

Minnesota History Center

Clara and I spent the early afternoon today in St. Paul at the Minnesota History Center museum. Foolishly, I forgot to bring my camera to capture the perfect picture postcard images of the State Capitol and the Cathedral, both of which are seen to great advantage from the history center grounds. There is still a small exhibit in the museum marking the centennial (2005) of the capitol building, but what engaged our attention for most of our time in the museum was the wonderful Open House exhibit. The exhibit (which was curated by the husband of a college friend of mine) reconstructs in marvelous detail the history of a single house in St. Paul from its building in 1888 to the present day, telling the stories of the many families and individuals who lived in the house over the years. The house was built by a German immigrant who became a successful pharmacist in St. Paul, and over the years it was subdivided to create apartments for working-class families. That one house was a rema…


Perhaps it's because I'm closing in on my mid-forties and feeling nostalgic for my lost youth, but lately I've been having the urge to start rereading favorite books from the first forty-three years of my life. Last year in England, I reread half of Jane Austen's novels (Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey) before watching the disappointing new adaptations on ITV. For many years, the only novel I had read more than once was Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I've read three times. Rereading Jane Austen was a marvelous experience: the novels, which I read for the first time in my late twenties or early thirties, were completely fresh and new a decade later. But rereading Tolkien, before the first film came out, was a disappointing experience. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was the greatest reading experience of my teen years, had lost much of its magic when I reread it in my late thirties.

Besides the remaining three Jan…

Readers Wanted

Clara's sabbatical project while we were in England last year was to write a draft of a book about Athens in the year 415 BCE. She wanted to write a book that would be accessible and interesting to a general audience, not a specialized book for other classicists. The project has lain dormant since we returned to America last August and Clara returned to teaching and chairing the classics department. Now she's looking for volunteers who are willing to read and comment on at least the introduction and first chapter of the book. She's looking for non-classicists, readers who can comment on the book's accessibility to its intended audience.

415 was an eventful year in Athens. The period covered by Clara's book (which doesn't correspond exactly to a modern calendrical year) includes the first production of Euripides' tragedy The Trojan Women and Aristophanes' comedy The Birds. At the heart of the story is a famous unsolved mystery known as the "mut…

Which Candidate is the Woman?

In our discussions about the current Democratic showdown between Clinton and Obama, Clara has often remarked that Hilary Clinton can't afford to appear to be "soft," because soft rhetoric or soft positions on issues will be dismissed as somehow tainted by her femininity. She has to be hawkish on foreign policy. She has to have metaphorical balls.

Back when I was starting out as a "stay-at-home father," about fifteen years ago, I read a book called Composing a Life that had a great impact on my thinking. The book is by Mary Catherine Bateson (the daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson), and it explores how women successfully deal with the complexity of lives that don't often follow the straightforward career track of men. She talks about improvisatory power of women in creating lives for themselves that often take them to unexpected places, and involve them in many changes and ambiguities. Here is a passage that has stayed with me for all these ye…

A Little Preaching to the Choir

In an apparent effort to distract attention from the fact that she went all James Frey over her 1996 trip to Bosnia, Hilary Clinton has belatedly decided to criticize Barack Obama for comments made by his long-time pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Senator Clinton says that if Rev. Wright had been her pastor, she would have broken her ties with him and with Trinity United Church of Christ. She would have found another church to attend.

I suspect that there are many of us who, since 2000, have wanted to become citizens of another country because we haven't approved of the words or actions of our current President. But I also suspect that most of us realize that George W. Bush does not represent the opinions of every citizen of this country. I suspect that many of us, as I do, love our neighbors, our local communities, and America itself. We protest that President Bush does not speak for us, but we don't pack up and move to Canada.

I suspect that Senator Obama is in the same posi…

Size Matters: Federalist 11 and Extinct North American Megafauna

One of the advantages of a stronger Union under the Constitution, according to Alexander Hamilton, was that it would allow America to take Europe down a peg. Europe, he wrote impatiently, had grown accustomed "to plume herself as Mistress of the World, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit." He continued:

Men admired as profound philosophers have, in direct terms, attributed to her [Europe's] inhabitants a physical superiority; and have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America—that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed a while in our atmosphere. Facts have too long supported these arrogant pretensions of the European. It belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race, and to teach that assuming brother moderation.... Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness!

Earlier in 1787, Thomas Jefferson had finally published his Notes on the State of Virginia, which…

Spring Snow

Ames Mill and the Cannon River

Our house in its temporary winter camouflage

There are more photographs of today's snow in Northfield at LocallyGrown and Penelopedia.

Opening the Cannon River Country

I first came on to the beautiful plateau where now Northfield is, in the summer of 1854, and as I stood and looked to the west over the “Big Woods” and to the east over the broad prairie, and saw the clear, rapid river flowing between, it was a splendid view, and though I have seen many beautiful places, both in my own and foreign lands, I have never seen anything that thrilled me as that did, and I said to myself, “Surely where this beautiful river leaves the timber and takes to the prairie, some day there will be a busy town built up”—cities were not so common then as now—“and the surrounding country will be covered with happy homes, and I will seek no further.” And so in the month of August, 1854, myself and wife made our claim and built our log cabin…
—J.D. Hoskins, Old Settlers Reunion, Northfield, Minnesota, February 1898

A year after Robert and William Watson arrived in Minnesota, on July 30 1851, representatives of the federal government opened treaty negotiations with tribes o…

Federalist 10

The dollar is in freefall against the euro and other major international currencies. Foreclosures are becoming increasingly commonplace. The United States is trillions of dollars in debt to the Chinese. Major investment banking firms are collapsing. Credit is drying up. We seem to be facing a major financial crisis; the worst, some are saying, since World War II.

In 1787, the Revolutionary War had left state governments heavily in debt. The popular solution was to print more paper money, but because there was little hard currency to back the paper, the paper became essentially worthless. Ordinary citizens were also heavily in debt, unable to pay their creditors or pay the taxes that the states levied to finance their own debts. Some farmers had gone beyond defaulting on their obligations, and were resorting to armed rebellions, such as Shays' Rebellion in western Massachusetts. There was widespread agitation for debt relief, or the outright cancellation of debts—a solution …

La Rivière aux Canots

The Upper Mississippi was first explored in 1680 by the French priest Father Louis Hennepin. Father Hennepin started his explorations from the Jesuit mission on Mackinac Island, near the straits between Lakes Michigan and Huron. Setting out in birchbark canoes, Hennepin’s party of French and Ojibwe skirted the top of Lake Michigan and arrived at Green Bay, where they entered the Fox River. They followed the Fox River to Wisconsin River, which brought them a last to the river the Indians called “Meche-e-sebe,” the Great River.

Eight years later, in September 1688, the Frenchman Louis Armand, Baron Lahontan (1666-1715), set out along the same route to explore the Great River. He reached the Mississippi on October 23. On November 3, according to his account, he entered a tributary of the Mississippi, a river almost without a current whose mouth was filled with reeds. He claims to have spent sixty days travelling up the river, covering nearly five hundred miles. Along the way, he c…

Sibley Marsh and Prairie

The ice has just started to open on the small pond in Sibley Marsh, and the spring peepers haven't yet begun to sing. Things were quiet in the marsh on a Sunday morning; the loudest sound was the call of a male cardinal going off like a car alarm in the top of a tree. Sibley Marsh is the best place in town to see red-winged blackbirds, but their spring migration hasn't reached us yet this year. I saw robins and juncos and cardinals this morning—all common overwintering birds. I also saw a couple of rabbits. In the late spring, the thickets of wild plum and sumac will provide excellent nesting sites for the red-winged blackbirds. But first, the males will arrive alone, and begin to call to attract their mates.

It wasn't until I passed St. Peter's Lutheran Church, across from Sibley Marsh, that I remembered that today is Palm Sunday. Although I have fond memories of waving palms and singing "All Glory, Laud and Honor" on childhood Palm Sundays, I now fin…

On Lake Pepin

At La Crosse and Wabasha, the steamboat passed several Indian villages. “We noticed at each village as we passed,” Watson recalled, “the scaffolds made of crotches and poles about twelve feet high, on which they laid the dead who had died during the winter, there to wait until spring thawed out the ground so that they could bury them.”

Lake Pepin, ca. 1830, by Seth Eastman (1808-75).

Above Wabasha, the steamboat passed into Lake Pepin. In mid-March, bald eagles congregate on the river, soaring down from the bluffs and fishing off the melting edge of the ice. In the winter, the local Indians would fish for sturgeon on the lake, casting their spears through holes in the ice. Steamboats arriving before the ice broke up on the lake had to unload their cargo at Reed’s Landing, near the southern entrance to the lake. The cargo was then taken overland by wagon to the top of the lake. By mid-April, when the Nominee made its first trip, the ice was gone, but there was perhaps only the fain…

By Steamboat Up the Mississippi: Galena, Illinois

At Galena, Robert and William booked a six dollar passage on the steamboat Nominee, a 212-ton sidewheeler that advertised weekly round trips to St. Paul. In April 1850, when Robert and William Watson came aboard, the Nominee was making its first run up the river.

Captain Orrin Smith

The captain of the Nominee was a man named Orrin Smith. Robert Watson describes Captain Smith as “a genial Christian gentleman, very approachable and willing to give information, with a dash of humor… He was asked all sorts of questions by the passengers, many of them foolish; I wonder he did not get tired of answering them.” He was a religious man—he refused to run his steamboat on Sundays—but he was also a shrewd businessman and a skillful captain. In 1852, he made the round trip from Galena to St. Paul, with stops, in a record time of fifty-five hours and forty-nine minutes. Few steamboat captains were willing to go head to head with Captain Smith and the Nominee.

Galena, Illinois, in the 1850s.

E. S. …

Jazzed-Up Friday

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Last night was the third Friday in a row that Clara and I have gone out to a concert or the theater, making up for the six weeks lost to a herniated disk. Last night, we drove up to north suburbia for a dinner to celebrate Clara's brother's birthday, then headed down to the Ordway for a Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert. I haven't been in the Ordway for several years, since we started going more regularly to the Minnesota Orchestra. I'd forgotten how wonderful the Ordway is, with a bright spacious lobby and, best of all, spacious and well-designed restrooms. They put the loos at Orchestra Hall and the new Guthrie Theater to shame! The concert featured Kurt Weill's concerto for violin and winds (with Stephen Copes as soloist) and Schumann's Fourth Symphony. On "Jazzed-Up Fridays," concert goers have the option of staying out in the lobby after intermission to hea…

Federalist Friday

I'm postponing my discussion of Federalist 10 this week. Because of its huge importance, I need to re-read it and ponder it some more.

An Old Settler's Story: Part Two

When they arrived in America in 1849, the Muir family moved west, drawn by the prospect of rich farmland on the Wisconsin prairie. The Watsons, who arrived in 1837, journeyed as far west as Cleveland, Ohio, to an area known as the Western Reserve. In the eighteenth century, Connecticut had claimed ownership of the Western Reserve, and most of the early settlers in the Western Reserve were native New Englanders. The towns these settlers created in the Western Reserve looked very much like New England towns, with their neat white houses and tree-lined streets. There was also a large population of Scottish immigrants in northern Ohio who had been drawn there by the promise of abundant farmland.

Northeastern Ohio, in those days, was still covered in thick forests, although the settlers had quickly begun to clear the land for farming. According to one writer, “it took less than a century for the 7,000-year-old forest of northern Ohio to be converted to open land by New England settler…

An Old Settler's Story: Part One

Editor's Note: As we count down to May 11, 2008, and the official sesquicentennial of Minnesota's statehood, I want to return to the occasional "Blogger History of Northfield" series that I started here last fall. I'll begin today with the first installment of a multi-part piece about Robert Watson. I wrote briefly about Watson last September 11 in a post about Oaklawn Cemetery.

On September 8, 1825, Robert Watson was born in the city of Dundee on the east coast of Scotland. Dundee lies on the north bank of the Firth of Tay, the estuary where the fresh water of the River Tay mixes with the salt tides of the North Sea. In 1837, when Robert was twelve, he and his father and his ten-year old brother William decided to come to America.

We don’t know anything about Robert’s childhood in Scotland or about his voyage to America, except that the journey was long and hard. John Muir (1838-1918), who grew up to be a famous writer and naturalist, also came to America fr…

Ginger with Attitude

I haven't bought any new clothes in a while, so last night I ordered this t-shirt, emblazoned with the slogan from my new favorite novelty potato chip flavor, Kettle Spicy Thai (available at Just Food Coop in Northfield): Ginger with Attitude. While I was on the internet stimulating the national economy, I saw something that might raises the spirits of the poor, sick Tassava family: a SpongeBob Squarepants Digital Thermometer. What sick child doesn't want the SpongeBob theme song playing in her butt? "Are you ready kids?"

Reading Journal: American Creation

American Creation is the latest book by Joseph J. Ellis, best known as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers. The subtitle of his new book is Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, and he attempts to show how the signal failures of the Founders—namely, the failure to resolve the issue of slavery or to reach an accommodation with the Native Americans—were bound up with their successes in achieving Independence and establishing a stable government under the Constitution. In six chapters, he covers the year leading up to the Declaration of Independence, the winter at Valley Forge, the fight to ratify the Constitution, the failed treaty with the Creek nation, the origins of the two-party system in Jeffersonian opposition to the Federalist establishment, and the Louisiana Purchase. The focus is on Great Men—Washington, Madison, Jefferson—and the ways in which they responded to and shaped events, the ways in which their personalities and prejudices (e…


Clara and I joined our friends Jeff and Mary last night for a wonderful concert by the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. The house was packed for the featured piece on the program, Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, with Alfred Brendel as soloist. Brendel (b. 1931) is retiring from the concert stage, so last night was probably his last appearance at Orchestral Hall. I heard him in concert about 30 years ago, when I was in high school, and went backstage after the concert to get his autograph. I still have it in an album somewhere. He's best known for his Beethoven, and his performance of the Third last night was memorable. And after several minutes of standing ovation, he sat down again to play, as an encore, a piece which I brilliantly identified to Clara as a Schubert Impromptu (no. 2 in A Flat, Op. 142, D. 935).

After the intermission, many of the people around us had left, sated with Beethoven and Brendel, or perhaps unenthusiastic about the final p…

Federalist Friday: Federalist 7 & 8

...the continual effort and alarm attendant upon a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty, to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they, at length, become willing to run the risk of being less free

The words, from Federalist no. 8, are eerily prescient. Alexander Hamilton was arguing that the states, in a state of disunion, would be compelled, because of their perpetually vulnerable position, to resort to establishing "standing armies," which would gradually erode liberty. Standing armies were a notorious bugbear in 18th-century republican thought because they were seen as instruments of tyranny: established to ensure security from external dangers, they inevitably became instruments of internal coercion. This happened, in large part, because standing armies required a strong executive at their head—a Caesar who could use the army to secure hi…

Take Fifty-Five

On Sunday, I forgot to mark the 55th anniversary of the performance by the Dave Brubeck Quartet at Oberlin College immortalized in the great album Jazz at Oberlin. The album was recorded live in concert at Oberlin's Finney Chapel on March 2, 1953. Although the Quartet's best-known number, Paul Desmond's "Take Five," doesn't appear on that album, I thought I'd include the following video, which features drummer Joe Morello's stunning solo.

Which Jane Austen Heroine Am I?

My niece just invited me to take the "Which Jane Austen Heroine Are You?" quiz on Facebook. My niece—a lively, gregarious, athletic, and imaginative twenty-year old who loves to read—is Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey. I'm Fanny Price, the self-effacing heroine of Mansfield Park.

You are smart and shy, a quiet beauty with brains that intimidate everyone around you. You often feel out of place, homeless and alone. As an intellectual idealist, you long to be heard and understood, but rarely waste your time trying to defend yourself to those who could not possibly understand. Time and experience is making you bolder. Despite your clever genius, you long for simplicity, and the love of your soul mate, who is a socially surprising and unlikely match.

Fanny Price is generally the least popular of Jane Austen's heroines. For most of the novel, she stays off to the side of the main action, a quiet observer who uncomplainingly attends upon her indolent Aun…

A Funny Thing

Clara and I were in St. Peter, Minnesota, last night for a production of Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Gustavus Adolphus College. It was my first evening out since the middle of January. Before the play, we had dinner in the impressive Gustavus student center with classicists from Gustavus Adolphus and St. Olaf Colleges. At dinner, there was a brief discussion of how self-indulgent blogging is. Case in point...

I taught for a year in the classics department at Gustavus, beginning in September 1991, the month when Will was born. I remember driving over to St. Peter on a Monday morning and arriving to find a message that I should turn right around and head back to the Northfield Hospital. Will is sixteen now, and Gustavus has changed a little since I was there. The big change happened On March 29, 1998—ten years ago this month—when a tornado touched down in St. Peter (good photographs of the damage here) as part of a system of 13 tornadoes that mar…