Sunday, May 31, 2009

Endings & Beginnings

This fall's kindergartners planting pumpkins at the Cannon River STEM School Open House.

If Will had been born ten days earlier in 1991, yesterday would have been his graduation day from Northfield High School. Instead, he has another year to wait, which is fine with me. Last night he played in the band at commencement, then rode his bike out to Dairy Queen with his parents before heading to a friend's house to finish a final project for French class. At Dairy Queen, we sat at a concrete picnic table at the foot of the small slope that he used to roll down when he was little.

"This hill used to be bigger," he said.

I had spent the morning down in Faribault, at the Cannon River STEM School open house. There were more than 200 people, parents and children, in attendance. For more than three years, the school has been an idea. Yesterday, with teachers and students and parents all together around the school building, it finally became a reality.

The kindergartners who start at CRSS in September will graduate from the school (after eighth grade) in 2018, and will be in the high school class of 2022. Strange to think that this fall's kindergartners are starting school exactly 40 years after I started kindergarten.

A little over a month before I started kindergarten, Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on the moon. In 1969, human beings made a great step into their collective future, and I made one small step—across the threshold of Mrs. Adams' classroom—into mine. It's exciting to be launching a new school of science, technology, engineering and math in the anniversary year of such an event. It's exciting for me, 40 years after I started school, to look at the children starting kindergarten this fall, and to think of all the steps, great and small, being taken here. It's exciting to think of all the big hills that will become easy to climb. It's exciting to think of all the seeds being planted for the future.

Cross-posted here.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

"The King is Dead"

Maybe it took the distance of seventeen time zones and an entire hemisphere to turn me on to hip hop. Here's what's been at the top of the Pod lately: the Australian hip hop group The Herd, with a surprisingly infectious song about the defeat of long-time prime minister John Howard in the 2007 Australian elections. Explicit lyrics.

The song is from The Herd's 2008 release Summerland. Other highlights include "Emergency," about the global environmental crisis, and "Black & Blue," about an educational system that fails at-risk youth. Smart, intensely rhythmic, often symphonic music. "Can't be non-partisan when you're an artist/And you put your heart in it..."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How I Spent Memorial Day Weekend

On Friday, Clara and the boys and I packed up and headed up to the U.P. (the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) to enjoy a weekend of "bat-proofing" our summer place. No bats were killed, but many were displaced from the human living quarters. This is the earliest that I've been up to the island, and I was interested to find a species of wildflower that I had not seen before during our late June-August stays on the island. This is "ten-point phlox" (phlox bifida), which was growing all over the western point of the island.

Phlox bifida

The forget-me-nots (an introduced species) were also blooming, but not yet at their peak. I searched the woods for other native wildflowers (e.g., pipsissewa, starflower), but found only forget-me-nots.

Finally, here is a little brown bat having an unscheduled midday fly around the kitchen of the big boathouse (a.k.a. "the bathouse").

click to enlarge (bat in right-hand white canvas triangle above kitchen).

Friday, May 15, 2009

"A Degree in English"

This morning's New York Times features a guest Op-Ed piece written by my friend Christopher Francese, associate professor of classics at Dickinson College. He writes about the arcane and unnecessary practice, still followed by some colleges and universities, of granting diplomas written in Latin.

Chris as Julius Caesar.

On the Ides of March (March 15) this year, Chris took the title role in a reenactment at Dickinson of the assassination of Julius Caesar. He was "stabbed" by a group of classics majors, and fell "dead" at the foot of a statue of Benjamin Rush outside the classics department building. Rush was a founder of Dickinson College and a notable opponent of classical education, which he found too elitist and not pragmatic enough for a democratic society. In 1798, Rush wrote: "The study of the Latin and Greek languages is improper in the present state of society and government in [the] United States. While Greek and Latin are the only avenues to science, education will be confined to a few people. It is only by rendering knowledge universal, that a republican form of government can be preserved in our country."

Chris lying at the feet of Benjamin Rush.

Near the end of his life, Rush engaged in a long exchange of letters with John Adams about the value of Latin and Greek. Adams was a proponent of a classical education, and valued his own training in classical languages highly. Adams wrote confidently: "As the love of science and taste for the fine arts increases in the world, the admiration of Greek and Roman science and literature will increase. Both are increasing very fast." Rush wrote: "Delenda, delenda est lingua Romana [the Roman language must be destroyed] should be the voice of reason and liberty and humanity in every part of the world."

Adams jokes that, in the age of a Napoleon striving for world domination, perhaps "we should agree to study the oriental languages, especially the Arabic, instead of Greek and Latin." His little joke was more prophetic than he could have imagined.

[photo credit]

Addendum. I should also add Chris to my list of friends and family who have published books. His book Ancient Rome in So Many Words (Hippocrene Books 2007) is an excellent introduction to Roman culture through a selection of representative Latin words.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Reading Journal: The Moonflower Vine

Jetta Carleton, The Moonflower Vine. Foreward by Jane Smiley. Harper Perennial 2009. First published in 1962. A "Midwest Connections" selection available at Monkey See, Monkey Read. $14.99.

Jetta Carleton's The Moonflower Vine was first published in 1962, two years after the publication of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. The comparison is inevitable. Both are nostalgic novels of growing up in "simpler" and more God-fearing times, but which still presented a full range of moral complexities. Both novels are centered around good, honest, loving people. Both are rural Southern novels: one set in rural Alabama, the other in rural Missouri. Neither author published another novel. Both novels are American classics.

Matthew Soames, the father in The Moonflower Vine, stands on a much shorter pedestal than Atticus Finch. He's a farmer and school teacher, husband of Callie and father of four daughters. The novel begins in the voice of Mary Jo, the youngest daughter, but then shifts into the third person, telling in turn the stories of the other members of the family: eldest daughter Jessica, Matthew, rebellious daughter Mathy, dutiful daughter Leonie, and Callie. Each character is full of life, and admirable, and flawed. Carleton shows great compassion toward human weakness, and has a generous understanding of the presence of grace in human life. Like another of my favorite novelists, Kate O'Brien, Carleton is interested in the tension between the teachings of our faith and the actions of our lives. She's interested in the complicated, painful, disastrous, and redemptive ways of human love. Although my feminist sensibilities detected a troubling flaw in the last section of the novel, the note the novel ends on is otherwise gracious and perfect.

After reading Elizabeth Bowen's The Last September, I found Jetta Carleton's prose like a drink of cool water from a mountain stream. She's wry and plainspoken and poetic, with a distinct twang. The first section of the novel could almost be a duet between Iris Dement and Emmylou Harris. Beautiful and grateful and sad.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Worth Two Thousand Words

There's not much happening here lately, so I recommend you click on over to Penelopedia to see the two most stunning photographs I've seen on the local blogosphere.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Spaghetti and Meatballs

This afternoon, while I listened to the mad psychologist on NPR describe how exciting he found torturing people, I made meatballs. It was easy to do. I started with a couple of pounds of Cedar Summit ground pork that I pulled from the freezer last Thursday. I mixed together the pork, a cup of bread crumbs (from leftover pane d'olio kept in the freezer), a couple of eggs, a couple of pressed garlic cloves, and some oregano, basil, salt and pepper. After I formed the mixture into balls, I browned them in olive oil, then threw them into a big pot with a large can of crushed tomatoes, another large can of diced tomatoes, some more oregano, another pressed garlic clove, and some salt. I let this simmer for a couple of hours, then served it with spaghetti.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Book Coverage

Recent and forthcoming books by friends and family

On, I've started an occasional "Northfield Writers" series, featuring profiles and interviews with local writers. My first profile was of Shannon Tassava, one of whose essays will appear in the collection P.S.: What I Didn't Say: Unsent Letters to Our Female Friends (Seal Press), forthcoming in October. My latest (ghost-written) profile is of Tom Swift, whose first book, Chief Bender's Burden (2008), was honored last weekend with the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Finally, although he's not a local author, I have to mention my brother-in-law Jason Mittell, whose book Television and American Culture was recently published by Oxford University Press. Jason is an associate professor of American Studies and Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. He also has his own blog, JustTV.Link

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Spring Wildflowers in Big Woods State Park

Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Minnesota dwarf trout lily (Erytnronium propullans)
This flower is in the Federal endangered species list, and is found only in Rice, Goodhue, and Steele Counties.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Project 1929: "The Last September"

Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September. Penguin Modern Classic. Originally published in 1929.

September 1920. The War in Europe is over, but British troops have been dispatched to Ireland to act as an army of occupation to counter the revolutionary threat posed by the Irish Republican Army. Amid the mounting tensions, the threat of violence and reprisals, life goes on at its usual languid pace in the country homes of the Anglo-Irish nobility. There are tennis parties, visits, dances, and engagements. Elizabeth Bowen marvelously recreates the wistful atmosphere of a sheltered world about to be violently swept away. Her writing is sophisticated and occasionally difficult. Her sophisticated wit often reminded me of Tom Stoppard. Unfortunately, the characters in the novel never quite connect with each other, and I found it difficult to connect with the characters. One of my favorite lines in the novel comes as the inhabitants of the country house are waiting around to see off a guest, a young woman named Marda, whose stay has ended. Hugo, another guest at the house, has become rather irritably infatuated with Marda, and stands around awkwardly as she prepares to leave. Bowen writes: "There was to be no opportunity for what he must not say to be rather painfully not said." That clever line, with its accumulation of negatives, summed up the novel for me: it's about missing opportunities that never really existed. A kind of tragic inertia hangs over the story, as people again and again fail to commit to the difficult process of knowing each other.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

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