Monday, November 24, 2008

SYLLABUS=THE FICTION MIXTAPE

The time has come again to submit my book orders for next semester, and as I pore through anthologies and photocopies, trying to figure out which stories to teach and in what order, it occurs to me that the whole process is a lot like making a mix tape.

Time is the cassette tape and the stories are the songs.

Necessary considerations:

• striking the right balance of tone and content, old greats and brand-new brilliance, multiple cultures and voices, realism and fabulism and minimalism and lushness
• the staples, the surefire winners, the surprises
• side-by-side order of stories, the timing and mixing thereof (which perfect triad of stories will illuminate a technique in disparate yet compatible ways--in 75 minutes?)
• sequencing the whole thing to move seamlessly from one week to the next for maximum cumulative power.

And like mixtape-making, the endless rearrangement and math of it eventually ties my brain in knots. Elbow-deep in anthologies, books and photocopies spread all over the table, I'm glassy-eyed and fast-forwarding impatiently through each story, hardly able to pay attention beyond the first and last pages.

Truthfully, I couldn't be happier that this is my job.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

THE PARK RAPIDS HOCKEY PLAYERS' COOKBOOK

I mentioned the Park Rapids hockey players' cookbook in my previous post. It was printed sometime in the early 1980s, thinks my mom ("I'm pretty sure Nate was still a Mighty Mite.") The recipes are all submitted under the hockey players' names, and are presumably their favorites, or at least what their mothers figured would be the most appreciated by the other hockey moms.

From this paean to ketchup, hamburger, cream-of-something soups, and Cool Whip, I pulled out some choice recipes. Most look pretty revolting or perplexing to me, but I'll admit I'm tempted to go for the French Fry Bake.

All right, let's start with some of the main dishes--namely, hotdishes.

FRENCH-FRY BAKE

CHEESEBURGER PIE

CHEESEBURGER

MEAT ON A BUN

MISTER HOTDISH
I'm having a hard time believing this can be cut into squares.

And two of the many macaroni-based recipes, starting of course with...
MACCRONIE AND CHEESE
(Whoever typed the cookbook spells it this way in every recipe.)

WESTERN MAC HOTDISH
"What makes it Western?" my mom and I wondered. Then she figured it out: green peppers.
(Also note the second ingredient.)

On to SALADS,
a term that in Minnesota applies to any dish that is served below room temperature.

ORANGE SALAD
I ate variations on this at every church potluck. I preferred the kind that had cottage cheese in it too.

"MANACOTTI SALAD"
Try to envision this.

PISTACHIO SALAD

Finally, DESSERT.
(That's right, Cool-Whip-based dishes belong in the Salad section.)
For the most part, this is the part of the cookbook that actually sounds delicious. Cupcakes, bars, brownies, cookies, many involving melted bags of chocolate chips...and finally, my classmate Courtney Rutherford's recipe for
POPCORN CAKE.

If anyone will venture to actually make one of these dishes and send me a photo of it, I will personally mail you a photocopy of the whole book.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

SWEDISH PANCAKES

I am home in northern Minnesota for the weekend. The snow is still light, the air is nippy, the sauna fired up. And this morning, I awoke to Swedish pancakes.

This was the favorite breakfast of my childhood. Growing up, I didn't eat standard fluffy buttermilk pancakes very often. Instead, my parents made these delicious floppy, crepe-like, Scandinavian pannekaker.

Essential to their deliciousness is that you slather them in maple syrup (Minnesota style) or in lingonberries and lightly sweetened sour cream (Scandinavian style) and then roll them up.

Let me tell you, a roll-up of tender buttery pancake and real maple or creamy tart lingonberries sure beats the typical sodden wedge of your standard flapjack.

Here's the recipe, as printed in my brother's hockey player cookbook from nineteen-eighty-something. (My grandmother found it the other day, yellowed and grease-spotted but staples still intact. I think I'm going to have to post some select excerpts from it after this.)

I usually put in only a tablespoon or two of sugar--it doesn't really need four (a full quarter-cup!) But whatever, I can eat these with my fingers straight off the griddle. And, as I have witnessed firsthand, kids can easily eat ten and even twenty of them in one sitting.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

SOURTOOTH SHOUT-OUT

One of my best friends in the world (since 1980!) just confessed to me that she has been secretly keeping a blog. (I did that too, when I started. I wanted to make sure it would take.) And what a great blog it is! Today, a delightful picture of deer-hunting cupcakes from the Menahga bakery.

Amy is a great writer (degree in English from Macalester) and an equally brilliant cook (she's cooked, and written cookbooks, for the big guns in New York--Bouley, Vongerichten, Gallante, et al). Most importantly, she is very funny, and genuine and knowledgeable and pragmatic. She's just all-around good, that's all there is to it.

About half the year she and her husband live back home in northern MN in the amazing house they've built up over the years. (The other half, in Brooklyn.) Aaron makes art and Amy cooks and writes. They harvest wild rice from the lake in the fall. They snowshoe in the woods in the winter. They have an enormous garden in the summer. And Amy makes incredibly delicious food, year-round. Every time I'm home, I can't wait to bump down their mile-long dirt rollercoaster of a driveway to their oasis in the woods.

So now she's writing about it--life in the woods, eating good food, or as she puts it, exploring rural cuisine in the city and the country. And there are recipes. Go on, feast. I'm going to be counting down to our Christmas break slumber party. (Dibs on the sleep loft.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

HARBINGER FROM THE AIRPORT NEWSSTAND

This is one of those things like cellphones on airplanes or digital books where I feel like the future is going to be a big headache. Imagine a whole wall of this.
video
Forget our attention spans for a second--honestly, is the human eyeball built to handle so much flashing and light and movement as the modern world keeps stepping it up? Like physiologically, what does it do to us? Are our brains going to look different when they lift them out of our skulls in ten, twenty years, new wrinkle patterns in the occipital lobes?

Or will we just become increasingly skilled at not seeing? Selective attention, honed pinpoint-sharp.

I was going to speculate it's going to be weird for writers and anyone else who relies on nonspecific observation. But personally I am already zoned out much of the time, too preoccupied with whatever's in my head to notice, say, the chair I'm about to walk into.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

CAN I VOTE ON YOUR MARRIAGE NOW?

I think this says it as well as anything:

I haven't let myself go into despair (yet) about Proposition 8, for a couple of reasons. For one, I have been overwhelmed by the Obama feelings. For another, my heart was so broken by the passage of Oregon's gay marriage ban, Measure 36, in 2004 that the scar tissue is thick. Like Proposition 8, Measure 36 followed a brief exuberant period of legitimate marriage licenses being issued. Friends of mine who had been married were suddenly, upon public referendum, declared "single," for all technical and legal intents and purposes. The subsequent letter that arrived a few weeks later informing them that their marriage had been deemed void was accompanied by a refund check for sixty dollars.

I had never cared about gay marriage until 2004. I had decided that the government had no place legislating love and I didn't need their validation of my personal life. Plus, it dawned on me in my early twenties that one of the great advantages of being gay was that I was suddenly exempt from the questions and pressures that dogged my brothers and cousins at every family gathering. I was delicately skipped over in the boyfriend/girlfriend inquisitions. No one was checking in on my marriage track. Mom wasn't flashing grandma's wedding ring hopefully at me. And I liked it. I alone got to forge my own path, unquestioned.

Then, in the brief time when I lived in the Bay Area, mayor Gavin Newsom famously issued the directive to the city-county clerk to issue marriage license to same-sex couples, and everything changed. My girlfriend and I, curmudgeonly but curious, went down to City Hall just to look.

How to even describe the weddings we saw? There were so many. They were happening all over the room--on the floor, on the steps, on the mezzanine. We saw people of all ages, styles, some with friends and family, some alone. We watched two men, middle-aged, one with rectangular black glasses, one wearing jeans, both small and comfortably frayed around the edges, get married on those steps. They had no friends or witnesses or parents; it was just the two of them and a deputy with her back to us. They held small bouquets instead of rings. They stood facing each other and held each other’s hands tightly, looking into each other’s eyes as they said their vows. They looked overwhelmed and shaken, in a good way, and they exchanged bouquets and kissed, and then they all embraced, the men and the deputy. She left to perform another marriage, and the men sat down on the steps. They kept holding each other’s hands and talking quietly to each other.

To be there and witness it was to be witness not only to the weddings themselves, but also to an incredible moment in these people’s lives, in our people’s lives, in history, in American life, in gay life. The ceremonies were obviously unplanned and yet so long planned--almost everyone was in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties. Many had children and babies. These were unlike any other weddings I’ve seen. They weren’t about the family, the church, everyone you ever knew gathered together to celebrate; they weren’t about table settings or invitations or renting a space or a year’s worth of planning; they weren’t about a wedding party, about clanking wine glasses and heartfelt toasts; people weren’t marrying for money or status or family expectations. These weddings were distilled to the essential meaning of marriage, they were so purely about a love between two people, about lifelong commitment, about forsaking all the trappings in order to get what matters. Each other.

For the first time I witnessed the public recognition of love between two people who happen to be the same sex, and the essential right of that love to exist. For the first time I understood how much that recognition matters. It really matters.

So that was 2004. And time and again, these goddamn bans keep passing, state after state. It cuts profoundly, as always. Says Andrew Sullivan:
I'm happy to say that Proposition 2 passed, providing minimal humane protections for pigs, chickens and other farm animals. How odd for people to restrict cruelty for animals and simultaneously inflict it on some humans.
My friend Robert has declared on his own blog,
Go ahead, ban my future unplanned marriage. You're not making any decision for me--I wasn't getting married anyway. But as soon as I get enough votes on a petition, I'm going to put your marriage up for ban too: your second marriages first (my own parents be damned!), and then your childless marriages (with an 11-month "validation period" to consummate), and then your unhappy marriages (psychologically tested once every 18 months), your adulterous marriages (automatic divorce, with permanent marriage ineligibility for life) and your two-home marriages (regardless of whether you live in separate homes because of work or family obligations).

When I am done, there will be nine people in the country who are married, and marriage will never have been stronger.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

THE MOMENT

I couldn't believe it. It took a while to sink in. At the party, I stood in stunned awe with my colleagues as the returns came in--Should we get out the champagne?, someone asked, dubious, wondrous. Already? We poured the champagne, wide-eyed and grinning, and toasted and cheered and teared up at the sight of Obama, the people. Still, I felt like I had suspended but not shaken my disbelief.

How could the moment have already arrived? This moment?

My friend and I got on our bikes, the night was cold and clear, and I couldn't quite believe that I was biking home and Obama would be president, that we had actually won. No vote theft, no fraud, no lawsuits, no upsets--a clear, undeniable win.

We heard, then saw fireworks flashing above the trees. "I think it's in Tappan Square," Bernard said. "Should we go check it out?" Of course we did. As we neared, we heard drums thumping and a steadily increasing roar. There, underneath the sporadic glittering explosions, a full-on bacchanalia was underway: a marching band, swarming throngs of people dancing and hugging and screaming and whooping, kids climbing the rafters of the bandstand, gleeful streakers, and, something I never thought I'd hear on this campus, chants of U-S-A! and O-BA-MA! The euphoria was mass, the joyful noise deafening and continuous.

My camera and my phone had both died so I had no way to document the moment, but I was grateful for this. All I needed to do was be in it. The moment demanded no less.

Eventually, having hugged and cheered and shared amazement with everyone I knew there, I took leave of the escalating nudity and shenanigans. Back home I read the online newspapers from around the world until three a.m. I closed the laptop and got up to take out my contacts and on the way, reaching into a dark room to turn on the light, I leaned my forehead against the doorframe and closed my eyes and burst into tears.

I sobbed and sobbed.

I said aloud, Black president. I had to repeat it. Black president.

I'll admit, I talked to myself. I had to say it aloud again and again as it sunk in deeper and deeper. Really? Is this really my country? I could not stop crying. I don't think I have ever felt so surely that America did something so right.

I know there are impossible expectations, but now my cynicism is completely dismantled. All I feel is love and relief and a kind of heartbroken-ness, in a good way--just cracked open, feeling it all, and good with that.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

ELECTION DAY IN PICTURES (SO FAR)


The Oberlin Obama HQ, 9:30 am, already bustling (they'd just dispatched a huge batch of volunteers). I was sent out to rural Henrietta Township with a first-year student named Truc Lin.
















I arrived home at noon to find my own door tagged. The campaign operation may not always be super efficient--but it's certainly prolific.


Obama HQ at 3:30 pm

Back to Elyria for one last round

Obama HQ at 5:40 pm

Off to an election party, more to come.

Monday, November 3, 2008

MCCAIN'S LAST GASP/THE BLACK MCCAINS

This arrived in my mailbox on Saturday, printed big and bright on sturdy cardstock, courtesy of the Ohio Republican party.

(cover)

(centerfold)

(back)

Too little, too late is the least of it. That this arrived on November 1st illustrates some real desperation on the part of the Ohio GOP. Weren't they supposed to be wooing the Hillary supporters in June, and sealing the deal with Palin?

Interesting to note that McCain is the central figure here, while Palin is mentioned only once, and appears as a sort of disembodied bust butting into the text while emerging from, or being swallowed by, a mysterious eyeshadow-blue mist. In fact, fogginess is the unifying graphic motif throughout here. Fittingly. And even though she's only an inch or two shorter than him, Palin looks eerily tiny next to McCain (bad Photoshopping?), which magnifies the paternalistic vibe.

Also, I must say, I hate the McCain font. Very 1970s minor-university press.

FAR more fascinating is this amazing article I read in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago about the other McCains--the black McCains. That's right, the descendants of the slaves the original John S. McCain owned back in Mississippi, on a plantation called Teoc. Many of them still live in the area.

The whole article is amazing, and sort of maddening, the way the WSJ tries to temper things ("The McCains in the early 20th century were known among African-Americans for relatively equitable treatment of their workers and tenants, especially compared with the abuses happening on many other farms," key word being "relatively," of course; in the 19th century, they took advantage of a despicable law to forcibly reclaim custody of three girls under age 15 whom they'd owned before emancipation.) Read the whole thing, it's great. One clip:
The black McCains of today were raised to believe that they were blood relatives of the white McCains, dating back to slavery times. White McCains say they're unaware of any biological connection between the families. A spokesman for Sen. McCain declined to comment.
They all support Obama for president.