Monday, December 31, 2007

POST-MINNESOTA BLUES

I miss this stuff.


This little piece
by Verlyn Klinkenborg in today's NYT is brief and lovely.
It’s worth standing out in the snow just to savor the anticlimax of midnight, just to acknowledge that out of the tens of millions of species on this planet, only one bothers to celebrate not the passing of time, but the way it has chosen to mark the passing of time.

...I always wonder what it would be like to belong to a species — just for a while — that isn’t so busy indexing its life, that lives wholly within the single long strand of its being. I will never have even an idea of what that’s like.
Happy new year.

Friday, December 28, 2007

SOLUTION

Subject of a spam e-mail in my inbox this morning:

Feel at peace in the middle of war with Valium

If only.
RIP, Benazir Bhutto.

Friday, December 21, 2007

NERD JOY, NERD DESPAIR

I have just found Scienceblogs.com, and particularly the blog Pharyngula. Takedowns of fatuous creationist claims! The evolution of eyeballs! Pictures of octopuses! (Note: the plural is not, and will never be, octopi.) Diverging species of giraffes!
Giraffes sleep very little and mostly standing on their feet. They give birth while standing, with no apparent ill consequences to the newborn which, after falling from such a great height, gets up on its feet and is ready to walk and run with the herd within minutes.

Newborn giraffe! Freshly fallen.


I never technically learned evolution in high school--I knew the basics and veracity of it because my parents are intelligent and science-minded people, but I skipped taking biology on anti-dissection grounds. They probably evaded the topic anyway. But then in college I took one of those science classes for humanities students: "Dinosaurs, Mass Extinctions, and Other Headlines from the History of Life." I signed up only because I needed the science credit. But I was instantly, utterly enchanted. Giant sloths and beavers and elk, australopithecus afarensis, the reason human childbirth is so inordinately painful and human infants helpless for so long (it's the price we pay for big brains and walking upright)--wondrous, awe-inspiring knowledge. Far more extraordinary than guys walking on water or getting swallowed by whales.

My writing class reads this funny, marvelous (in the most literal sense of the word) Bill Bryson essay that captures that sense of amazement that we exist at all, as species and as individuals-- and every quarter there's a handful of students who openly hate it for its evolutionary implications. This bums me out deeply. I haven't yet figured out how to work with it in class discussion. Would my job be threatened if I showed them this awesome Nova special? (You can watch it online for free!) Probably not at the college, but if I were teaching high school, quite possibly.

The way that "intelligent design" advocates (and their counterparts, the so-called "young earth" believers) try to get into public schools is to set up a conflict. Because they can't prove intelligent design using any sort of credible or scientific method, they instead frame it as a controversy, worthy of acknowledgment. But it's not actually a controversy for anyone but them.

If, as they say, they truly want to encourage critical thinking in the classroom, they're setting their inventions up to scrutiny they can't actually survive.

And yet! In Texas, you will soon be able to get an online Master's Degree in Science Education--from the Institute for Creation Research.

WHY IS AMERICA SO CRAZY.

MINNESOTA ACCENTS: FIELD RECORDINGS

The curse and blessing of originating in beautiful northern Minnesota is that there is no easy way to get there. Yesterday, a long gray van called Executive Express hauled me and several other squashed human cargo from the Minneapolis airport to various stops northward. Five and a half hours and two vehicle switches later, I was finally home in the woods. As long as I was wedged in that seat in the waning light, I took some field recordings of our driver, Larry. He is a classic Minnesota Old Guy, accent and all.

video

What happened to the Greyhound stop in Alexandria, you may wonder? Listen on:

video

Finally, we loaded the final human into the van and headed out of "the metro," as Larry refers to it. It's already five o'clock, we've been in the van for an hour, and the combo of rush hour and holiday traffic is a sea of still headlights stretching before us. But, as Larry and the front-seat passenger somberly discuss here, Some People Have It A Lot Worse.

video

All I'm going to say about the movie Fargo is that watching it at Oberlin when it came out was really, really weird, and it made me feel a little defensive. Marge Gunderson is every hockey mom I know, and I love her. But the rest of them, too much. I didn't watch it again for ten years. I'm going to finish this thought later. The sauna has wiped me out.

Monday, December 17, 2007

TOPS OF OH-SEVEN (PART ONE)

I have to submit all my grades, like, now! I had better start making an unrelated list on my blog.

BEST ART BOOK
Chris Johanson, Please Listen I Have Something To Tell You About What Is

Ninety-eight percent of the time, I hate text in art. It's so embarrassing. In Chris Johanson's paintings, though, text is as essential as people and planets and buildings and geometric shapes. The letters themselves have a human quality, plaintive and and unsteady and yearning.

BEST DESIGN BOOK
Hand Job: A Catalog of Type

Hand-drawn is where it's at!

BEST MAGNETIC FIELDS SONG
"Girls in Their Summer Clothes" by Bruce Springsteen

BEST ANYTHING IN A MOVIE
Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There. Twitchy, contrary, willful, resistant, and foxiest-ever in that tight little mod suit and tousled hair.

BEST PHOTO BLOG
Documenting rock, art, queers, Portland, and life, Megan Holmes just gets better and better. Delicate and heavy at the same time.

BEST NEW NPR CONTRIBUTOR
Tie between Tobey and Hector.

BEST KARAOKE PERFORMANCES
This may have been the Golden Year of Karaoke. I will simply list the first that come to mind.
• TJO singing "Xanadu" at the Galaxy, post-Sister Spit
• That same night, Texta Queen's unearthly, yowling hellos on "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
• Douglas's aptly titled "Rump Shaker" bringing all of Chopsticks II to its feet
• C-Love and Winner's "Fast Car" at Chopsticks III, avec human beatboxing
• Nicole Georges' surreally Jacksonian soprano in "ABC," various venues
• Khaela's banging rendition of Rod Stewart's "You Wear It Well" (just last night!)
• Most anything with Yuri and Josh
• Carrie's impassioned "Same Auld Lang Syne" (R.I.P. Dan Fogelberg!)
• Julie Butterfield's jaw-dropping "Scenes from An Italian Restaurant" in Ryan & Holly's basement
• Janet's entire wigs-'n'-mustaches birthday affair

BEST DOG
Who could it be?

No way--it's Emmett!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

GUNS 'N' SNOWS

Not to lean too heavily on the Incident report, but what with the guns, snow, cold, and early darkness, shit is getting crazy in Park Rapids. Even the animals are going nutty. No wonder people are seeing Bigfeet.
A caller reported a male party showing up at a residence, possibly intoxicated, bleeding from the head; People were reported shooting from a truck in Farden Township; A Clover Township resident reported his neighbor shooting all the time, caller thinks it's just to make him mad; A Straight River Township caller reported males threatening to shoot up and burn her house, one has a rifle in the trunk of his car; Subsequent call reported the identified males are at the house shooting, four were taken into custody and a victim taken to St. Joe's; A caller reported a truck driver shooting at a mailbox and taking off, caller pursued truck but couldn't keep up; A group was reported sitting in a vehicle in a Park Rapids lot with loud music playing; Kids were reported "doing donuts" in Park Rapids; An abandoned bike was reported on Main; Three sightings of a possible Bigfoot were reported in Farden and Badoura townships and Cass County; Kids were reported throwing a football across the road in Park Rapids; A caller reported a neighbor in an apartment "came at him with a cane and was threatening to kil him"; Hunting was reported on a Lake Emma Township roadway; A caller reported hearing strange noises outside; A caller reported the neighbor's horse was in her yard again; Ten white horses were reported out on CSAH 19 and County Road 101; Three dogs were reported going through the ice in Henrietta Township, a Lab was in the water about 100 yards from shore; Two rams and a llama were on the road in Crow Wing Lake Township, offficer told they belong to a party who lives on a nearby island; Dogs were reported harassing turkeys in Guthrie Township.
(This is just a condensed version--maybe a third of what's printed in the Enterprise.)

I miss Minnesota. Five days before I head home.


By the way, that is not my home (as much as I would enjoy that mythology springing up around my origins.) That is just the hunting shack of Rich from Rich's Antiques, best thrift/junk store ever.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

WRITERS' DESKS

My desk is one of many featured in the exhibit "Writers' Desks" that went up at the Capitol in Iowa City. I like Marilynne Robinson's--it takes a minute to figure out.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

ARE WE DOING ANYTHING IMPORTANT

or, College Students Say The Darnedest Things™ (Part I).

1. Yesterday was my final class of the quarter. At the halfway break, one student came up to me and said, "So are we doing anything super important in the rest of class?"

How does one answer such a question?
a. No, in fact, I hadn't planned anything at all. I just like to be here with you.
b. No, we are only going to do trivial and insignificant things in this college classroom.
c. No, we are going to watch cat videos on YouTube.
d. Yes, we are going to do the most important thing ever done.

I furrowed my brow and said, "We are discussing the Sontag essay and Seong-Oon is giving a presentation." I suppose my body language made my point, because he stared at me for a second and then slunk back to his seat.

I should have said, We are having an unannounced final exam based on the reading for today. Except half the class would have failed. Because...

2. I uncapped a marker, went up to the white board, and posed the simple question, "What are some of the main ideas Sontag writes about in her essay?"

Blank faces.

"Just throw them out there," I said, and turned to the white board, ready to write. Sometimes students feel more free to speak up when you turn your back.

Silence.

I turned and looked at them and asked, "How many people have read the essay? Raise your hands."

About ten of the twenty people present raised them. Mind you, the essay was THREE PAGES.

"I had a lot going on this weekend," one guy offered, unprompted.

3. One hour and twenty minutes into our one-hour-and-fifty-minute class, in comes Student X and takes a seat, flustered and breathing heavily. I have had this kind of student before: they believe that simply by showing up most of the time, they can somehow pass the class, despite never turning in assignments or participating in class discussion. (This must be a holdover from high school.) They also seem to believe that as long as you arrive at some point before class is totallly over, it counts as attendance.

But this particular student has some strange classroom habits. One day, I caught her working on sudoku puzzles. Last week, I heard a distracting crinkling sound while someone else was speaking, and looked over to see her rifling through an advertising flyer, like the ones from Target and Kmart that are tucked into newspapers. She was methodically circling objects. Then she folded it all up and tucked it back into her bag.

One of my colleagues had a student start flossing during class.

4. Last quarter, in the final week, a student approached me to pester me for an A. I told her she'd been doing good work, but the fact that she persistently came to class 20-30 minutes late hurt her grade. "But I have a math class at the same time as your writing class, and in fact my math teacher lets me out early to come to your class. That's why I'm always late," she explained. "Please give me an A?"

Can you imagine ever having approached one of your college professors and saying these things? It floors me.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

INCIDENT REPORT #5

It is snowing in Portland! Right now! Falling snow is among my favorite five things in the world. I have to run outside with Emmett right away because it's too warm to last. Meanwhile, in Park Rapids, MN, it is one degree above zero and the snow is already several inches deep, and, apparently, everyone is drunker than usual. Plus they have guns. (One week left of deer season.) Here, from the Park Rapids Enterprise, the Incident report:
A Bemidji State University student reported leaving on foot from a party in Helga Township because she felt "uncomfortable," needs to get to Bemidji; Kids were reported spinning around a corner in Park Rapids; A caller reported her mother called her and said the neighbor "beat her up but she was too intoxicated to call" so her daughter was making the call; An East Crooked Lake resort manager reported a caller asking about the resort, sounds suspicious, may be related to a string of burglaries; A Park Rapids male reported a female contributing to minors, throwing a party after getting her paycheck, caller sounds intoxicated; An intoxicated male was reported walking in the ditch on Highway 64 north; Careless snowmobile driving was reported; A Park Rapids caller reported hearing female screaming; A caller reported windows frozen over in her apartment, considers it a hazard should there be a fire, wants documentation; Five vehicles were towed for snow removal; L&M called regarding a customer who was irate about a van parked in the handicapped spot, driver is not handicapped; A Lake Emma Township caller reported her husband was out deer hunting and did not return, she yelled for him and he is yelling for help, tree stand fell, Air Care launched; A caller reported the rafters in her house are on fire; A Park Rapids caller reported going out and getting drunk, giving her debit card to her boyfriend to buy pop and now there's $200 missing from the card; A Guthrie Township caller reported a car drove up and the driver shot a deer in her yard; A porcupine was reported under a Nevis porch.
When I was a kid, we had to wear blaze-orange vests when we walked down the driveway to wait for the school bus. (We live in the woods.) And when we let the dog outside, she wore an orange Park Rapids Panthers hockey jersey. (My friend's yellow lab had been killed by a bowhunter.) After deer season, Shady would occasionally drag random pieces of deer into the yard--a leg, a bone, once a head, or once, a whole rotting spine. In town, deer are tied to the tops of cars and piled in the backs of pickups parked on Main Street. Tall heaps of hides at the gas stations. In school, I would literally have to stick my fingers in my ears to avoid the trauma of people's gruesome hunting stories, classic crawled-a-mile-bleeding-to-death stuff, which they relished retelling.

The Enterprise has always published a hunting photo or two, depending on space, but now thanks to the internets they have expanded into The Game Room. Here you will find photos of toddlers gripping antlers and smiling teens (and preteens) cradling the bleeding heads of deer and bears they have "harvested." ("The neighbors should be able to sleep secure knowing that their flower and vegetable gardens can safely sleep through the winter.")

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

I HARDLY KNEW YE

Today my friend Dan Selzer, who has the most encyclopedic and arcane music knowledge of just about anyone I've ever known (bordering on autistic-level, the info in that guy's brain-files), and who now runs Acute Records, posted a rhapsody on the life-affirming power of "120 Minutes" back in the day.
Now you kids out there, you may not appreciate this, what with your internets and every 13 year old weirdo in the world downloading Group XEX and Screamers music like it’s their birthright. You don’t know how much work it was to be weird, or what a relief those two hours on MTV were.
Read on (and enjoy many video clips.)

I did not have MTV growing up--in fact, you could not get it in Park Rapids, except maybe by satellite--but when I would go to my grandmother's house in North Dakota I could gorge myself on it. One afternoon she walked in the room when the video Porno for Pyros' "Pets" was playing. She took one look at Perry Farrell parading around onscreen and said, "What is that thing? Somebody get a stick and kill it."

GO TWINS

The new challenge of being five-foot-four at a rock show is that not only do you have to tiptoe and lean and sway to get a glimpse between and around shoulders, hairdos, other hulking human obstacles; now you also have to eye-dodge a million tiny screens being lofted to capture the stage action, or else resign yourself to watching the entire show through them. You have to tune them out like blinking banner ads. Except this is a live show, not the internet, and there should not be little LCD banner ads hovering in and around the audience.

My horse is not so high; I snapped a handful of pictures myself tonight, all of which turned out useless. But the brawny dude in front of me would hold up his camera to film entire songs, bulky elbows winging outward and further slashing up the meager view. At some point, it crosses over into light pollution. Now that smoking is banned, this is the new secondhand.

OK, show report: Tegan and Sara are like Our Own Backstreet Boys. I only mean this in terms of the audience reaction, which was jelly-kneed, high-pitched, constant screams. Anything T&S said, the crowd screamed at. People even screamed while they were speaking. I thought the girl behind me was going to go into seizures when they launched into whatever that last song was. ("Living Room"?) I would not be surprised one bit to hear reports of crying and fainting in the front.

They are incredibly cute and charismatic onstage, jokey and Canadian-accented. And their voices live are more differentiated and more interesting than they are all layered up on record. Sara's voice is like a shard of glass. Very New Wave. Tegan has a richer voice with a great scuffed-up edge. She slowed down "Soil, Soil" and "Call It Off" and you could hear her voice stretch and fill the space. I'd like to hear her do a Cat Power kind of project.

Megan took some beautiful pictures at some secret early thing they did earlier in the day at Mississippi Studios, up on her sumptuous photo-blog.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

"OR ELSE"

Before I owned a house, I never noticed things like crown molding, quarter-round, wall texture, backsplashes, door solidity, and cabinet hinges. Now every home I enter, I find myself eyeing all the parts of it and attempting to determine their provenance. (Atomic Series light fixtures from Rejuvenation! Et cetera.) I never would have noticed these things if I hadn't at one point had to think about them and make my own choices about them.

In the same way, the way I read fiction has changed over the past seven years, thanks to workshopping stories and teaching writing. When you start reading everything with work gloves on, you can't help but dismantle and deconstruct. I mean, I was always a critical reader--in eighth grade, I gave up on Danielle Steele novels when I found myself mentally editing her sentences as I read. But still, I read quickly and I'd read anything--classics, teen romance crap, Clan of the Cave Bear, I plowed through them all.

I sometimes miss that speed and voracity. Now I head into a story with my eye much closer to the page, and I notice a million things about word choice and sentence structure and so on. And if something doesn't immerse me within a couple of pages or chapters--if I still find myself poking, prying, and inspecting--I tend to abandon it. Unfortunately, this means that I read fewer things. And I think I've carelessly ditched some worthy works. But I think the all-or-nothing approach means that when I do like something, I really love it. My book reviews would be "didn't finish" and "five stars," and little between.

Which is why I loved coming upon "Or Else" by Antonya Nelson in a recent New Yorker. I read this story and just sank into it completely. It is deeply layered, lonesome, dark and beautiful. I love the protagonist's self-consciousness--his acute, almost meta- awareness of the narratives he is spinning, even as they leave his mouth. When somebody asked me what I'd done that night, I said, "I read this story 'Or Else'." Reading it gave me the feeling that something had happened; it was an experience in and of itself. I think that is one of my top ten feelings in life. Five stars.