Showing posts from August, 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,…

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.


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 impl…

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 y…

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 loc…

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 re…

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.

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.

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.

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 h…

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 …


"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…

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…

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. …

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 i…

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 d…

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 offer…

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…

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.

Musical Crush of the Week: Elin Manahan Thomas

Gabriel Fauré, Pie Jesu, from the Requiem

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.

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 pur…

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 s…

Up North Scenes

Sailing and kayaking on Wilderness Bay

Improvement Projects

(Fifteen around the dining room table)