Saturday, June 28, 2008


It was a rock camp week, the first of the summer, and I am walking around with a sleep deprivation so deep it resembles serenity.

But once I enter the rock camp doors, my motor revs right up. The energy and spirit there are so powerful, the noise joyful, the day bumping along on steady jolts of amazement.

This session Tara and I held a workshop on Cool Sounds (mostly, she did the demonstration, I did the narration.) We started out by demonstrating a Line 6 pedal and how to make loops and effects, then showed them some methods to make your voice or guitar or percussion sound weird. By the end of the hour they were singing into cut-off plastic bottles and toilet-paper rolls, drumming on mailing tubes, playing the tambourine with an electric toothbrush, thumbing a kalimba hooked up to a distortion pedal, etc. One girl would be playing the guitar with a slide while another plinked and rubbed its strings with a screwdriver and another twiddled the distortion pedal knobs. In the spirit of innovation, a girl picked up a metal bottle cap and hit it with a mallet. It all built up into a 17-kid total noise-jam freakout.

When I returned to camp this afternoon during loud band practice, this is what was coming from the nearest windows. I don't know which band this is, but they formed four days ago and the oldest any of them could be is 16. (All I caught here was the guitar solo--there was much more, all rad.)

Tomorrow evening (Saturday) they all play at the Bagdad Theater--20 bands of girls, putting flesh and feathers back onto the hollow bones of slogans like "girls rock." This isn't some School of Rock adult fantasy-curio of ten-year-olds aping Zappa and Zeppelin. The girls write it all themselves--imperfect, joyous, real, and awesome in both the literal and slang sense of the word. You can get your own life changed by proxy.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


The Times has a fascinating article about Albania's sworn virgins: rural women who, finding a loophole in an ancient code called the Kunun, get around the abysmal lot it decrees for them ("a woman is a sack made to endure") by taking an oath of celibacy, and then dressing and living as men. Completely.

The accompanying photos are lovely, though few. I went looking for more pictures and found this piece in the Washington Post, which takes a different angle (along the lines of "sure, they have agency and rights, but how sad that they never got to have families and children"), but has an interesting video clip from a Swiss documentary called Sworn Virgins.

But National Geographic comes through:

Most news sources sort of poke gingerly at the homo possibility, then dismiss it, but doesn't Pashe for one come across as an elegant butch, in that classic gaslight way? There are also clear parallels in Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence (a book that sounds like John Waters fodder and/but is in fact an incredible read.) Except the Albanian virgins wield much greater authority, and their lives are worth as much as a man's (12 oxen, per the Times; other women are worth half that.)

Fiction-related: I have an apparently inexplicable, some would say inexcusable, indifference to Alice Munro, but her story "The Albanian Virgin" captivated me. (I read it so many years ago I couldn't even tell you if this post is a spoiler.)

Saturday, June 21, 2008


(But not in the Soundgarden way.) I'm home at the tiny 1955 cabin where I lived every summer in my youth.

No internet waves have yet lapped this shore. Time moves at a totally different pace, or rather, just as it used to. The day feels fuller and longer, even with nothing in it. Just as the night sky, cleared of buildings and light-leak, is incomprehensibly vast and black and starry.

The largest bog in the 48 states and the "lost" forest of 350-year-old pine trees that escaped the lumber barons back when will have to come tomorrow--I just picked up Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson and read the first twenty pages standing up, and now I'm cutting out of this 21st-century bookstore and heading back to the dock.

P.S. From Out Stealing Horses, page 5 (the narrator has retreated to a telephone-free cabin in the deep woods near a river):
All my life I have longed to be alone in a place like this. Even when everything was going well, as it often did. I can say that much. That it often did. I have been lucky. But even then, for instance in the middle of an embrace and someone whispering words in my ear I wanted to hear, I could suddenly get a longing to be in a place where there was only silence. Years might go by and I did not think about it, but that does not mean that I did not long to be there. And now I am here, and it is almost exactly how I imagined it.

Monday, June 16, 2008


You know how in Gmail, just above your message box there appears a little one-line ad that's tailored to whatever keywords the Google robot gleans from your inbox?

I went into my spam folder just now to look for a password message and there the little ad said,
Spam hashbrown bake--serves 8
with an actual link.

Now that is custom.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Slight format change! The Park Rapids Enterprise, along with its redesign, has cut back on the "caller reported" prefix for many of the entries. Oh well. The new, concise, yet no less eventful, Incident Report:
No wake sign in water; While going to get spare flat tire fixed, someone trashed his vehicle in Clay Township; Domestic with one bleeding from his head in Akeley Township; Nevis Township resident reports tampering with his web site as well as some activity on his property; Domestic between two sisters in Farden Township; Several mailboxes damaged by "someone with a hatchet" and "mail all over the place" in Lakeport Township; Six to seven pieces of plywood fell off a truck at the intersection of Hwy 34 and CSAH 1 in Park Rapids, truck has not stopped to pick it up and traffic is backing up; Minors on the bridge at Fish Hook in Park Rapids, changing in public and jumping off bridge; Gas cap busted on his Mercury Mountaineer, owner thinks they were trying to steal gas; Highly intoxicated, middle-aged man riding bicycle on Pleasant, caller worried he might get hit; Kids racing gas remote control cars up and down the middle of the road in Park Rapids; Lake George Township resident came home and noticed a bullet hole at her home; Male sleeping by the steeple in Park Rapids; Kids having a fire in their driveway in Park Rapids; Neighbors burning, lots of heavy black smoke in Farden Township.
That last one sounds brutal and/or apocalyptic.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I have been rafting/paddling/struggling for air in a river of paper, hence blog neglect, and on Sunday did something unprecedented since maybe college: I stayed up until 5:30 a.m. plowing through a particularly urgent batch of short stories for WITS. Morning Edition comes on at 3:00 a.m. out here on the West Coast, which is my definitive cue to close up shop and head to bed--while the BBC World Service's sonorous seesawing strings feel like nighttime itself to me, when that syncopated smiling-with-eyebrows-raised Morning Edition theme strikes up in the middle of the night, I leap up from the couch to hit off on the radio.

But this time Morning Edition was well into its third cycle by the time I finally wrote the last wobbly comment. I closed a black folder over the whole stack and said, "Want to go for a walk?" The dog looked up, surprised--we had not even gone to bed yet--but of course he was game. Outside the sky was already pale gray. Birds were singing, etc. I was dreamy and loopy all day. Banging hand percussion with the Ecstatic Tambourine Orchestra for a TJO recording session was the height of my mental and physical capabilities. Though exhausted, I felt the immense relief of Being Done, the book closed on one class.

Teaching is strange and wonderful work. The high of a great class session is nearly unmatchable; the dread and grind of grading a stack of papers, same. In the June issue of the Atlantic Monthly, an unnamed Professor X writes a passionate and disturbing essay about teaching at what he calls "colleges of last resort." Discouraged by the inability of his students to write a research paper, he questions the entire philosophy that more education is better, that everyone should and could benefit from college education:
The colleges and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces—social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students—that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty. No one has drawn up the flowchart and seen that, although more-widespread college admission is a bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment.
Much of what he writes rings absolutely true to me. Grading is maddeningly subjective and occasionally disheartening. Students can be shockingly uncouth and clueless in their demands and behavior (previously noted.) And really, how useful is it for the aspiring auto mechanic or dental hygienist or engineer to know how to cite in MLA format?

I feel for and with Professor X. I think he's correct that many students are not adequately prepared for college. I think he's wrong that they are simply not cut out for college. His justifiable exasperation is more a result, I believe, of two major flaws, neither of which are the students' fault: the increasing failure of high school to teach adequate writing skills, and the exploitation of adjunct faculty.

Why do I regularly encounter students in their late teens and early twenties who literally do not know how or when to put a period at the end of a sentence?(1) Meanwhile, my
students in their mid-thirties and older--despite their profound insecurity about being back in college after decades out of school, claiming they have no idea what they're doing--write at the very least, competently and at best, beautifully. Obviously the causality is manifold and complex, but the generational contrast is stark.

What I would gently but sincerely suggest to Professor X is that if one finds oneself failing 9 out of 15 students, perhaps it is time to question not only the students' basic abilities, but also one's own a) expectations, short-term and long-term and b) methods for teaching students how to meet those expectations. Our motivations and methods of going to college were likely completely different--after all, we went to college and became college professors. We also went to colleges that turned people away, and at least in my case, cost salary-sized amounts of money, and created an entire social as well as academic universe that enveloped students completely. You cannot replicate those expectations for people who live entirely disparate lives and come in for four hours on a Wednesday evening. But you can have realistic expectations for them that still challenge them and help them to become better readers and writers and thinkers.

It doesn't always work. I too have failed students. I'll never give an A just for effort. But I do actually end up giving quite a lot of As and Bs, and I read a great deal of student writing that is funny, smart, and enriching for both of us. For me, the real reward of teaching these students is that they do come from busy lives, they have long and complicated histories, they have fantastic stories to tell, and they change from seeing writing as a dreaded task that generates a sea of red marks, to an interesting and meaningful way to discover new things and reshape their experiences in the world.

At the heart of it, Professor X shares this idealism, I think:
Reading literature at the college level is a route to spacious thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas, that is of value to anyone. ... Although I may be biased, being an English instructor and all, I can’t shake the sense that reading literature is informative and broadening and ultimately good for you. If I should fall ill, I suppose I would rather the hospital billing staff had read The Pickwick Papers, particularly the parts set in debtors’ prison.
In this last line beats the real heart of disillusionment: adjunct faculty are utterly screwed in this country. You care so much about your work, and your work is so valuable, and yet you are not paid fairly for it, and you have no legal recourse. Forty years ago, only 3.3 percent of faculty were part-time. Today, 68 percent of all college instructors in the U.S. are part-time faculty, with no job security and usually no benefits. They teach the exact same courses as full-time faculty, but get paid half or two-thirds what they do, for the exact same work. It is no less than an academic sweatshop. Despite the buoyancy of genuine student connections, there are corresponding deep dips in morale when you taste the bitterness of that inequity. Those are the times when you call into question everything that you do, and start wondering if you shouldn't just go work at the advertising agency writing perfectly punctuated copy for Starbucks.

(1) I can't answer that question, but I did get a glimpse into the dark depressing source when I taught creative writing for a week at Taft High School in Lincoln City, OR, a coast town with a tourism economy--bustling in summer, dead nine months of the year, split into the beachfront property-owning class and the service-jobs class. My first two classes of the day were ninth graders, already at age fourteen diverted into the lower track--low expectations, low-quality teachers, low spirits. (And most of them, low-income.) The first class was taught by a retired principal who had been recruited back out of desperation in a teacher shortage; as the students filed into the classroom, he stood by the blackboard with his travel coffee cup in hand and told me, without lowering his voice, that they weren't a particularly bright or motivated group and weren't going to do much for me. The second class was taught by a weak-chinned, mustached shop teacher inexplicably assigned an English class, which seemed to flummox him even more than it did me. There were about eight Mexican-American students in the class; he told me, "Some of them will pretend not to speak English, but they all do. Don't believe them." When they acted up, he threatened to call America on them. That was the name of their ESOL adviser--America. No joke. It turned out that doe-eyed Raul, who gazed at me helplessly and longingly when I explained the assignments, actually didn't understand English--but when I knelt by his desk and fumbled out some instructions in Spanish or when his friend translated for him, he eagerly wrote the poetry.

My afternoon classes were the upper track, and it was as if the day had been turned upside-down.
Their teachers were English teachers who expected them to do well, and they did. They wrote as fast as they could move their hands across the paper; they were quiet when asked and spoke up when prompted.

I left that town feeling completely shell-shocked. John Edwards' concept of "two Americas" never rang more true.

The other possibility could be that despite the fact that this generation communicates more than any previous via the written word, the structureless breathlessness of texting, e-mail, IM, and MySpace comments has utterly fucked the understanding of how the language actually works. It's kind of like on Project Runway, when they're frantically gluing the outfit onto the model the second before she steps out before the judges. At least that's what a lot of these papers come in looking like.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


Today I filled up my car--16 gallons--at the cheapest gas station in Portland, and it cost $66.

Times like these, it helps to throw my American entitlement under the cold shower of worldwide comparison to sober me up.

In Norway, I'd have paid $100.32.

Incidentally, I took that photo around 11:00 pm.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


On Thursday I hauled my parents down to the Museum of Contemporary Craft to see the long-awaited hotly-anticipated show by my friend Melissa. She is a brainiac and a half. She is also a conceptual artist who is allergic to documentation/archiving--so while over the past couple of years I have been well-versed in the verbal version of her work and ideas, this was the first time I got to actually experience her art.

The piece, called "Glass," is a huge 400-pound pane of engineered skyscraper glass, the same kind that the New York Times building is clad in. It's tipped horizontally here and perched atop a low wall. Since it's glass, and therefore technically liquid, you can see it already beginning to bend with its own weight.

It will bend and bend until it breaks--in large shards, apparently, this glass doesn't shatter--and then they will lift a new pane of glass there, above the remains of the old one, and then that one too will bend until it can't bear itself anymore. And so on. Minimalism + action.

There is a time-lapse webcam where you can view it, although the distance of the lens doesn't illustrate how enormous the piece of glass is, and how beautiful, and how much it has bent--a slender arch of space has already opened between glass and wall.

Afterward there was a panel with the artist and a few arts people. O, the panel. They were all superintelligent people, but the panel as a form seems to me innately hobbled and awkward. Has a panel ever been held in a room with a window? Just wondering. My dad (speaking of minimalist art, but I thought he meant panels, and it fit perfectly): "It's kind of like a Philip Glass piece, the same note over and over for six minutes, and then it changes to another note."

The museum was closed by the time the talk was finished and we were ushered out some back way. But the glass is there to see, through the huge windows (strange to look through them at it, and think how they too were viscous and could bend like that but for the engineering holding them upright.) Everyone clustered around the windows and peered in at it. "Like a patient, etherized upon a table."