Showing posts from November, 2008

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Reading Journal: "Without My Cloak"

Kate O'Brien, Without My Cloak (Doubleday and Doran, 1931). Available as a Virago Modern Classic.

Kate O'Brien's first novel, Without My Cloak, is a multi-generation family saga, set in the fictional Irish town of Mellick (Limerick) in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Considines are a wealthy, close-knit family whose fortune was made by the family patriarch, "Honest John" Considine, who established a successful firm of forage merchants in Mellick. Shortly after the novel opens, Honest John prepares to pass the reins of Considine's to his youngest son, Anthony Considine. Anthony is a savvy, status-conscious businessman whose one weakness is his indulgent love for his eldest son, Denis. Much of the novel chronicles the coming-of-age of the appealing and eccentric Denis, who dreams of a life much different from the one his father envisions for him in the family business.

The Irish novelist Maeve Binchy said, "Reading Without My Cloak was th…

On Ice Bubbles and Education

Ice forming on the Cannon River in Dundas, Minnesota.

The pond had in the meanwhile skimmed over in the shadiest and shallowest coves, some days or even weeks before the general freezing. The first ice is especially interesting and perfect, being hard, dark, and transparent, and affords the best opportunity that ever offers for examining the bottom where it is shallow; for you can lie at your length on ice only an inch thick, like a skater insect on the surface of the water, and study the bottom at your leisure, only two or three inches distant, like a picture behind glass...

I finished reading Walden for the first time on July 27, 2004. On the previous evening, according to the journal I keep each summer, Will and I watched three whistling swans flying low over Wilderness Bay. In the early morning, we woke up and sat on the dock to watch the Northern Lights. "At first," I wrote, "they filled most of the sky with a faint shimmer, like light evaporating... After about…

Federalist 15

Social scientists like to use games, like the famous Prisoner's Dilemma, to study human social interaction and cooperativity. In one economic game, the Ultimatum Game, two players are given a pot of money to divide among themselves. The first player must decide how to divide the money, and make an offer to the second player. The second player has to decide whether to accept the offer. If the offer is refused, neither player receives anything.

Alexander Hamilton saw the thirteen states under the Articles of Confederation as engaged in a kind of Ultimatum Game. How much power could each state reserve for itself? Hamilton, with his pessimistic view of human nature, knew that the states were essentially selfish, and each would jealously guard its own share of power. There was no reason, for example, why a strong state should submit to legislation passed by a weak central government, if the state determined that the federal legislation was against its individual interests. If a …

Save Every Child: More Notes on Reading Hofstadter

Given President Bush's mastery of "dog whistles" (the "use [of] code words to signal unpopular stances to one target audience"), I've begun to wonder, half-seriously, about whether there is a dog whistle sounding in the name of the legislation that forms the primary accomplishment of Bush's education agenda, No Child Left Behind.

In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter gives evidence of the evangelical, premillennial attitudes of many educational reformers in the progressive tradition. Indeed, the patron saint of progressive education, John Dewey, wrote in My Pedagogic Creed: "[T]he teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God." The child, according to psychologist and educator G. Stanley Hall, "comes fresh from the hands of God," and pioneering progressive educator Francis Wayland Parker wrote: "The child is the climax and culmination of all God's creation…

Reading Journal: "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life"

Eight years ago, as stunned liberals began to collect Bushisms as evidence of the new President's low intellectual wattage, sociologist Todd Gitlin offered the election of Bush as evidence of a "renaissance of anti-intellectualism" in America. Bush was enthusiastically embraced by a sufficiently large portion of the electorate despite being a man "of little discernible achievement, [and] little knowledge of the world or curiosity about it." To put Bush into the context of the history of American anti-intellectualism, Gitlin provided a brief review of Richard Hofstadter's 1963 classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Hofstadter's book provides and excellent primer for considering the relationship between intellect and American democracy.

Hofstadter, a historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was writing in the aftermath of the McCarthy era, when scores of intellectuals on the left were hounded for alleged Communist activities. The 1950s woul…

An Old Penguin

Here's a 1954 Penguin paperback of Angela Thirkell's The Brandons, which originally sold in England for "two and six" (two shillings and six pence). Thirkell's novels, set in rural English villages with names like Winter Overcotes, are a kind of cross between Jane Austen and P.G. Wodehouse. I found this book at Monkey See, Monkey Read.

You can read about the history of Penguin paperback book covers at the Design Museum website. In 2006, the Design Museum ran an exhibition on "Designing Modern Britain," focusing on landmarks of modern British design—including the covers of Penguin books. The website says: "The rigorous application of colour, grid and typography in those early paperbacks instilled Penguin with a commitment to design from the start." There's also a book about Penguin covers: Penguin by Design: A Cover Story, 1935-2005, by graphic designer Phil Baines.

The Chords of Affection: Federalist 14

James Madison easily disposes of the main item on his agenda for Federalist 14: to counter the argument that the territory covered by the United States (from New England to Georgia, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River) was too extensive to be united under a single central government. That argument, based upon a study of ancient democracies and a reading of Montesquieu, was expressed, for example, by the Antifederalist governor of New York, George Clinton, who wrote:
[W]hoever seriously considers the immense extent of territory comprehended within the limits of the United States, together with the variety of its climates, productions, and commerce, the difference of extent, and number of inhabitants in all; the dissimilitude of interest, morals, and politics, in almost every one, will receive it as an intuitive truth, that a consolidated republican form of government therein, can never form a perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, promote the gen…

Fleet Foxes

In Woody Allen's 1983 film Zelig, the filmmaker seamlessly inserts his character, Leonard Zelig, into archival footage of famous people from the 1920s and 30s, from Babe Ruth to Adolf Hitler to Pope Pius XI. I thought of this the first time I listened to the self-titled debut CD from Seattle's Fleet Foxes. I could imagine them inserted seamlessly into the rock music scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s, sharing the stage with The Band in The Last Waltz or performing "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" in archival footage of Woodstock. Twenty-two year old musical time traveler Robin Pecknold is the prime mover behind Fleet Foxes, writing the songs and creating a baroque folk rock ambience that's both fresh-sounding and instantly familiar. The CD sleeve includes a long list of influences that, unsurprisingly, includes both Maddy Prior and Brian Wilson. Fleet Foxes is evidently what it sounds like when you have a talented songwriter who grew up listening to the Be…

Reading Journal: "Naked Economics"

Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science. New York: Norton, 2002. Available by special order from River City Books.

Econ 101 met at 8:00 a.m., which in 1983 was much earlier than I was capable of getting out of bed. As a consequence, economics remained one of the more significant gaps in my education. Had I dragged myself out of bed in 1983, I might have learned how Fed chairman Paul Volcker used monetary policy to curb the high inflation of the late 1970s and slow the U.S. economy. The short term result was higher interest rates, peaking at 16% in 1981, and double-digit unemployment. The longer term result was a return to 3% inflation from 13% in 1980. But, because Econ 101 met so early in the morning, I learned none of this. Then again, I may not have learned any of this even had I managed to drag myself out of bed. As Charles Wheelan complains in Naked Economics, economics, as taught in college, is too often "dry and mathematical."

"The …

"What Change Had Brought"

The sharp eyes of the Telegraph have spotted President-Elect Barack Obama holding a new copy of Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott's Collected Poems, 1948-1984. Walcott (b. 1930) was born on the island of St. Lucia in the West Indies, and has divided most of his adult life between Boston and the Caribbean. "Divided" is an appropriate word. The first section of his autobiographical poem, "Another Life" (1973), is titled "The Divided Child." Of mixed African and European descent, Walcott was born in a British colony that for centuries had passed between France and England, and was raised as an English speaker among the island's predominantly Creole population. He received a classical education in a colonial school, absorbing the language of Shakespeare and the mythology of Homer and the Greeks and the images of European art.

Division, "halving," is a recurring theme in Walcott's poetry. In "Goats and Monkeys," he con…

"The Wild Goose"

Kate Rusby, "The Wild Goose" (from Sleepless and 10).
My current favorite song.

Federalist 12 & 13

Note: Last winter, I began a series of posts about The Federalist.My first series of posts concluded in March, with a post on Federalist 11. This is the beginning of the second series of posts.

Most of us learned in school that the American colonies separated from Great Britain over the issue of "taxation without representation." In the 1760s, Britain found itself with a large debt because of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which was fought in the American colonies. It was reasoned that, because the war was fought for the colonists' defense, the colonists should contribute to paying off the debt. So a series of taxes were levied through the passage of the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765), and the Townsend Acts (1767), which taxed everything form sugar to newspapers and playing cards to tea. These taxes led to open rebellion in the colonies.

Alexander Hamilton knew how difficult it was to collect taxes, especially when there was so little money in circulati…


In honor of the Forty-Fourth President of the United States, and my forty-fourth birthday.

A Sonnet

What Am I, Life?
John Masefield (1878-1967)

What am I life? A thing of watery salt
Held in cohesion by unresting cells,
Which work they know not why, which never halt,
Myself unwitting where their Master dwells.
I do not bid them, yet they toil, they spin
A world which uses me as I use them;
Nor do I know which end or which begin
Nor which to praise, which pamper, which condemn.
So, like a marvel in a marvel set,
I answer to the vast, as wave by wave,
The sea of air goes over, dry or wet,
Or the full moon comes swimming from her cave,
Or the great sun comes forth: this myriad I
Tingles, not knowing how, yet wondering why.

From The New Poetry, edited by Harriet Monroe (1923).

Meditations on the First Snow

This morning, we awoke to snow. The snow was still gently falling at 7:00, but I expect it will be gone before the morning is over. The chimney sweep is coming this morning to clean the chimneys of the two woodstoves, and I'm looking forward to sitting and reading in front of a fire in the evening.

Last night I went to a lecture at Carleton by Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gilead. As is evident in her fiction, Robinson is a deeply religious person, deeply influenced by Calvinism, but she is also a self-described humanist. She protests against the heavy-handed Darwinism of Richard Dawkins, which denies the spark of the divine in human beings, but she would also reject heavy-handed religious fundamentalism that denies nuance and imagination in the human relationship to the divine. It was revealing to learn that she came to the works of John Calvin through Melville's Moby Dick. Having caught the unmistakable theological inflections of that novel, s…

What I Learned from This Election

Once in a while, America is capable of taking a quantum leap forward toward fulfilling the promise of its founding. Sometimes, America surprises with a massive gesture toward goodness and decency and deeper fellow-feeling. Sometimes, the poetic words of our greatest President seem to re-echo in the American soul—
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Election 2008, Part IV

I spent the evening, from 8-10 pm, at the LocallyGrown election night party at the Upstairs Reub. A number of local candidates dropped in, and I had a few nice conversations with supporters. Unfortunately, the results aren't good. I finished in sixth place, with four seats open on the school board. The results, as reported by the Northfield News, look like this—

But I'm drinking champagne because—

We made history today. I may have lost, but America has won.

Election 2008, Part III

Peter working the phone.

I had lunch at the Classics Table at Carleton, finished reading my Greek assignment for tomorrow, then returned home to have a nap and a hot bath. Two of the Classics majors at the table were reminiscing about their public high school science teachers, who refused to teach evolution because they didn't believe in it. I've fallen into a bit of a low-pressure system mood. This afternoon, I got a call from a local voter who asked me, "If you were to run for state or federal office, what would your position be on abortion and gay marriage?" I told him that I wasn't interested in any office other than school board, which is the absolute truth. I told him that I am pro-choice. I told him that it was important to me that people of differing opinions and beliefs learn to have respectful and productive public conversations about controversial issues. In fact, that I have been involved in such conversations is a matter of public record: I took…

Election Day 2008, Part II

After going to the polls, I headed over to the high school to finish preparing the band's concert uniforms for Thursday evening's district-wide band concert. Prepping the uniforms involved assembling shirt, bow tie, cummerbund, pants and jacket, and placing each complete uniform in a numbered garment bag. I spent two and a half hours in the band room yesterday afternoon working on this project, and finished it up with another forty-five minutes this morning.

While I was in the band room, the band teacher shared with me the results of the high school's mock election, which was held last Thursday. Northfield high school students delivered a landslide victory for Obama/Biden, with 65% of the vote. The vote tally for the mock school board election was interesting:

Rob Hardy 33.5% (301 votes)
Jeff Quinnell 30% (273 votes)
Katy Hargis 30% (271 votes)
Kevin Budig 26% (233 votes)
Anne Maple 21% (191 votes)
Ellen Iverson 19% (174 votes)
Peter Millin 16.5% (149 votes)
Diane Cirksena 15.8…

Election Day 2008, Part I

6:00-7:30 am. Out of bed at six o'clock. Clear skies, with a forecast high of 70°F and voter turnout projected at around 80% in Minnesota. The first results are already in from Dixville Notch, the small New Hampshire village where polls open at midnight. For only the second time in history, Dixville Notch chose the Democratic Presidential candidate.

The last few weeks of the election season have been strange in Northfield. Last week, Northfield's mayor was charged with five counts of misconduct by an elected official and two counts of conflict of interest following a protracted investigation of his conduct in office. This came on top of news that a candidate for city council had been charged with removing public documents from City Hall. Finally, and most bizarrely, a visiting theater professor at St. Olaf College was charged with a misdemeanor, and forced to resign from his position, after confessing in an essay on the Huffington Post that he had stolen McCain/Palin lawn…