Sunday, September 30, 2007

Family: We Need the Children

Update: My students' work is now open for viewing at Composing English. If any of you have the time to take a look, I would be grateful, and I know they are excited to think that their audience has just grown past the boundaries of a classroom. ... good on you all!

You might enjoy taking a look at some of the work we're doing in first-year composition at Purdue. The slide show below is my "model" for the assignment relating to Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. Students were asked to compose a multimedia "argument" responding to one of two themes defined for this work: the commodification of life or defining the boundaries that compose "family." Student work is available for viewing at Composing English. Of course, if you see something you like there, but sure and leave a comment. You will be their first public audience, and, as you might imagine, they are a bit nervous about it! ... all part of the fun.

Here's my composition: Family, We Need the Children

Friday, September 28, 2007

A Rotten, Nasty **COLD**

It's my own fault. I knew better; I know better. I walk two to three miles a day, eat the best foods I can afford, and generally keep my hands clean and out of my eyes during cold season. So what happened? Well, we finished work early for English 420, so I let the students go - it was a Friday, after all, and I thought to take advantage of the extra time in a computer lab to get a bit of my own work done. And where did I choose to sit? At the very station where the only sick student in class had sat! I was having a great day, chatting with a few folks who lingered in the lab, and I mindlessly sat down at her station! ... a conscientious, young woman who had earlier cautioned me about her illness and warned me to be careful with proximity. It's my own fault. I know it!

Saturday last went OK, and Sunday, though a bit dragging, was fine, too, but by Monday, the beast was coming out to play, and I've been fighting this rotten, no-good, nasty COLD since then. Grrrr...... growling just seems the right thing to do.

And I want to work - I want to think, but it's not going well. I feel myself reaching through thick-pile velvet to pick up a dime or a half-dollar thought. They tease me with promise and drop away, then lay conspicuously daring me to try again. I don't. It's enough to keep finding my breath. Yet from here I remembering A Passage to India, the book Olga gave me, a love-hate read through fields of prose from E.M.Forster, a story as likely warm, inviting, and poetic as it was at other times repulsive to me. The story is haunting me this week as I wrestle with a cold, intruding on my best efforts to stay on the road with Kerouac.

Olga tells me that conversation about Forster's Passage can drift to discussions about the homosexual relationship between Fielding and Aziz, but that's a stretch for me; and though I can relate to the Mrs. Moore character and in passing moments to Adela, the real story for me in the novel is the being Indian that Aziz negotiates throughout. There are so many expressions for him, so many flows and tensions, and so many promising possibilities against a backdrop of limitation and performance. Aziz journeys on, and the story resolves only in that fact of his being still Aziz - poet, seer, and Indian. He continues and in the end he will be friends with the English only when the earth agrees ... "No, not yet," and the sky said, "No, not there."

And Jack Kerouac takes me back to the road, and my thoughts drift to a 4:30 class and the nasty, awful cold will lose this fight in the end.

Forster, E.M.. A Passage to India. New York: Harvest Books, 1965.

Quotes I note:

"It never bored them to hear words, words; they breathed them with the cool night air, never stopping to analyze..." (12)

"...pathos, they agreed, is the highest quality in art; a poem should touch the hearer witha sense of his own weakness..." (113)

"The poem had don no 'good' to anyone, but it was a passing reminder, a breath from the divine lips of beauty, a nightingale between two worlds of dust ... it voiced our loneliness nonetheless, our isolation, our need for the Friend who never comes ..." (114)

"Men yearn for poetry through they may not confess it; they desire that joy shall be graceful and sorrow august and infinity have a form..." (234)

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Shit Creek

For those not likely to be reading my friend Winston over at nobody asked ... , here's a reposting I couldn't resist.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


An Associated Press report released in August of this year provided a snapshot view of American readers. Highlights include:

  • Gallup Poll asked how many books people had at least started in the last year. The average answer was five, down from ten in 1999.
  • A National Endowment for the Arts report found that only 57% of America adults had read a book 2002.
  • An Associated Press-Ipsos poll recently released found that one in four adults read no books at all in the past year.
  • Yet, publishers showed $35.7 billion in global book sales last year, a 3% increase over the previous year.
I found a bit of hometown encouragement in the additional note that "people from the West and Midwest are more likely to have read at least one book in the past year," and that "Democrats and liberals typically read slightly more than Republicans and conservatives" do. ... proud to be a liberal Minnesota and happy that cold winters still make being curled up under a warm blanket with a hot cup of cocoa and a good book the best place to be.

My Mother's Story on Every Page

I grew up hearing stories of my grandfather's suddenly lost security and the family's sneaking away in the night in order to save the wagon, the team of horses, and as many of my grandmother's saved possessions as could be packed in a few hour's time. I often visited my Uncle Lloyd, a tenant farmer living a half hour's drive away, and remember the moving day for he and his family when the property owner served notice of eviction. He took a job as janitor at my school, a broken and angry man as I recall him now.

Though the losses suffered in my mother's family only echo those detailed in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, the recollection of their frequent retelling punctuated page after page throughout my reading experience. The characters became real for me; their determination became mine, and I felt the shared responsibility to discipline a willing anger in response to the inhumanity of tolerated yet totally unnecessary deprivation.

I remember my father crouched in a three-point stance of consideration, gathered with other men in conference and reinforced by the confidence of the women encircling them. I was among the children sent to play with a promise of Cracker Jacks. All these memories made it easy to read Steinbeck's Pa and Uncle John, Tom and Al, and the preacher, Casy, as if they were near kin. I might have mistaken Aunt Esther as a model for Steinbeck's Ma, the character with whom I most identified, a representative of strength I most envied.

Critically, I found the female characters - those beyond Steinbeck's Ma - to be less meaningfully composed, less individually consistent than male characters, and I often found myself wanting more from Rose of Sharon and Ruthie. An abundance of female characters written only incidental into the story seemed a best attempt to answer that need: the the truck stop waitress on one occasion and a trio of caring women on another exemplify a sampling of those stitched together in a kind of patchwork quilt of the female presence overlaying the novel as a whole. Yet the story carried me, caught up my attention, and wouldn't let me go.

I didn't want it to end. I had read the last pages ahead of beginning the book, and I knew Steinbeck would abandon me, that he would leave the missing chapters - the rest of the story - to be written in me. Even though overly sentimental by my measure, I recognized Tom's departing speech to Ma as the only readerly direction Steinbeck would give, and I didn't want to be left in the rain without an answer - drafted to a fight that would have to come off the page if the story Steinbeck began would ever find it's ending. Ma knew the trouble there would be and reasoned against her son's departure: "Tom, they'll drive ya and cut ya down .... they might kill ya an' I wouldn' know. They might hurt ya ... Then what, Tom?" And Tom's answer,

Then it don' matter, Ma. Then I'll be all aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where - wherever you look. wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there ... I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an' - I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build - why, I'll be there. See? (572)
Kenneth Burke's guiding sensibility that literature is best experienced as "equipment for living" finds fertile ground for me in Grapes of Wrath. The language sometimes dances, and the characters are sometimes so real that I think to tell one or another of them about a job I just found available before remembering myself, the book, and the pages where they are alone real - only there. But I am nonetheless another person at the end of this novel than I was when it began - a better person. I move more peacefully now, more determined to listen past the noise, and clearly in more possession of myself. There is enough to be angry about, and when the time is right, I am able to be angry, but there is enough reason to love, too, and more reason to draw together now than to push one another apart. So much of what my mother was trying to say in her stories finally comes clear for me in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.

My mother has never been much of a reader, and a book of some 600-plus pages long will scare the bejiggers out of her for sure, but she's getting Steinbeck for Christmas - audio and text. She just might find enough support and encouragement in the combination to make it all the way to the end. i'll get her started and leave the rest to Steinbeck. I am certain of this: If anyone can hold her attention, he can, and no other book will go the distance that this book does to make sense of the stories she remembers, the stories she has given to me. Good reading, Mom.

Quotes I Note:

They's a guy in McAlester - lifer. he studies all the time. He's sec'etary of the warden - writes letters an' stuff like that. Well, he's one hell of a bright guy an' reads law an/ all stuff like that. Well, I talked to him one time about her, 'cause he reads so much stuff. an' he says it don't do no good to read books. Says he's read ever'thing ... an' he says se makes less sense now than she did before he starts readin'. (75)

Ma cleared her throat. "It ain't kin we? It's will we? she said firmly. "As far as 'kin,' we can't do nothin', not go to California or nothin'; bas as far as 'will,' why, we'll do what we will." (139)

Al asked, "Ain't you think' what's it gonna be like when we get there? ... "No," [Ma] said quickly. "no, I ain't. You can't do that. I can't do that. It's too much - livin' too many lives. Up ahead they's a thousan' live we might live, but when it comes, it'll on'y be one. If I go ahead on all of 'em, it's too much. You got to live ahead 'cause you're so young, but - it's jus' the road goin' by for m
e. (168)

They's times when how you feel got to be kep' to yourself. (413)

And thinking about Abe ...
"You got more sense, Tom. I don' need to make you mad, I got to lean on you. Them others - they're kinda strangers, all but you. You won't give up, Tom.
"I don't like it," he said. "I wanta go out like Al. An' I wanta get mad like Pa, an' I wana get drunk like Uncle John."
Ma shook her head. "You can't, Tom. I know. I knowed from the time you was a little fella. You can't. They's some folks that's just theirself an' nothin' more. There's Al - he's jus' a young fella after a girl. You wasn't never like that, Tom."
"Sure I was," said Tom. "Still am."
"No you ain't. Ever'thing you do is mor'n you. When they sent you up to prison I knowed it. You're spoke for."
"Now, Ma - cut that out. It ain't true. It's all in your head."
"Maybe. Maybe it's in my head. Rosasharn, you wipe up these here an' put 'em away." (482)

The evening was hot, and the thrust of light still flowed up from the western horizon. And without any signal the family gathered by the truck, and the congress, the family government, went into session. (135)

Steinbeck, John. Grapes of Wrath. New York: Book of the Month Club, 1997.

A Promise to Read: Gibson's "Neuromancer"

Reading goes a little slower when the press of teaching comes alongside, and fall semester at Purdue means two sections of eager students: one, first-year composition, and a second in business writing. No complaints - I'm having a great time with the renewed challenge of university instruction and new approaches to writing.

But today is a day for catching up, and I'm writing about books that I've finished in the first weeks of school. First, William Gibson's Neuromancer.

Attending the 1997 International Science Fair (chaperon/teacher/proud mom of a state champion homeschooler studying vermiculture), I had the pleasure of hearing John Chambers, then CEO of Cisco Systems, deliver the keynote address. His talk was profoundly inspirational, just as you would expect it to be for up and coming young scientists, and in it he mentioned Gibson's Neuromancer as the 1984 "book that got us all started." Chambers made repeated references to the novel, and the title immediately went on my must-read list. I have only (finally) finished it this year.

Reading like a fast-paced, deeply-networked Mickey Spillane detective novel, the book's entertainment value was unfortunately lost on me. I can't say I've spent much time with crime novels. Language patterns were often too unfamiliar, and jumps through time or sudden shifts in character voice and representation sent me scrambling to find the threads of meaning again. Still, who could resist the near prescient collection of digital gadgetry so cleverly put to use throughout the novel? Set in "an age of affordable beauty," my personal enhancement favorites included Molly's lens, surgically implanted eye coverings sporting read-outs of time and weather as well as the identification of anyone approaching or personally "piped-in" messages from her cohorts in crime (maybe freedom fighters - depending on your point of view).

Trinity's wonderful line, "Load me up, Tank" (The Matrix), echoes a second Gibson device that captured my attention and continues to provoke a genuine desire/envy. Called "microsofts," these "angular fragments of colored silicon" mounted neatly into "carbon sockets planted behind the left ear" were an immediate and complete experience of knowing whatever you needed or wanted to know. Even better, they were stackable! The story's Panther Moderns who favored the devices were a set of youthful of willing anarchists tagged "softheads." Of course, Molly, belonging to an older generation, nonetheless lacks nothing for riding the razor edge of top technology, and rejoins with competitive savvy, "You can't let the little pricks generation-gap you." Go, go, Gadget Girls!

I thoroughly enjoyed those passages of the story that came clear for me, and I hold the confusion of other parts as no more than a witness to my own deficiency in reading. I'm willing to give Mr. Gibson his well-heralded due for a creative and commanding work, and I'll certainly return for a second reading after I whittle my current reading list down to a more manageable number ... a year or two from now, maybe, but ten more years pass again before I do, Mr. Gibson. I promise.

Quotes I note:

"But also he saw a certain sense in the notion that burgeoning technologies require outlaw zone,s that Night City wasn't there for its inhabitants, but as a deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself" (11).

"'I don't have that good of a memory,' Case said, looking around ... 'Everybody does,' the Finn said, dropping his cigarette and grinding it out under his heel, 'but not many of you can access it. Artists can, mostly, if they're any good'" (170).

"Case had always taken it for granted that the real bosses, the kingpins in a given industry, would be both more and less than people ... He'd always imagined it as a gradual and willing accommodation of the machine, the system, the parent organism. It was the root of street cool, too, the knowing poster that implied connection" (203).

"'She a warrior,' Maelcum said, as if it explained everything" (248).

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 2003.

Seeing Poetry

Since signing on to blog a bit with others at the Sycamore Review, I've been paying more attention to poetry. Of course, poetry isn't the only or even main focus of Sycamore Review, but it seems to be what has happened to me as I paid more attention (<-- an interesting phrase, isn't it? "pay" attention) to literature online.

I was lost for a few hours delicious hours the other day in poetry readings read aloud to me by the authors themselves at The Poetry Archive. Here I listened with ears and eyes to Patricia Beers, Anne Sexton, Dylan Thomas, and Spike Milligan (this last, at first, only because his name was so inviting). Even poets Tennyson, Yeats, and Browning can be heard reciting their own works, though the recordings bear witness to the passing of time as you might expect. Poke around in "historic recordings" to discover a favorite of your own.

Taking an otherly turn, I came across works I found to be called "animated poetry" and fell down a particularly wonderful rabbit hole with Billy Collins (44th U.S. Poet Laureate) and the series of his poems available on YouTube. Picking a favorite among these just won't work, but "Sweet Talk," "Forgetfulness," and at the top of my list, "The Best Cigarette" found more than one viewing with me.

From comments left on one of the Collins poems, I wandered on my way to this amazing bit of fun, work the writer called "graphic poetry." It starts slow, but give it a chance: "Harder, Better, Faster, and Stronger."

To save you the link jump, here is "The Best Cigarette":

Dear Senators

Please be part of the risk.

"If you're part of the risk, you're gonna be part of the solution. What we need in the country is for people to mobilize to get a simple law in Congress which says that the members of Congress will no longer have health insurance until all the other Americans have a similar health insurance."
Ralph Nader, September 9 interview with Bill Maher

thanks: onegoodmove

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Six years ... it's been six years, and the losses continue.

This memorial was composed by student artists at Bemidji State University in an effort to help us grasp, mourn, cope, and find one another in the aftermath of 9/11.

The work has aged with time. Seasoned now, it still continues to serve.

I am grateful.

Images taken: July 2007, Bemidji, Minnesota

Monday, September 10, 2007


My new living space in Indiana comes with a washer/dryer, convenient location, plenty of space, and even a pleasant view from a private deck. It comes, too, with this rather impressive fellow-tenant. Being as impressed as I was with his (?) size, I tried to establish perspective in the picture by placing a mini wooden match nearby. The match is about an inch and a half. Maybe this is would be a "baby" spider in your neck of the woods, but he's all he needs to be to catch my attention. The big question: did I kill him yet? Answer: no... not yet.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Graduate Education Via Online Video Lectures

I follow conversations from Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and Ira Socol who talk about the shifting models of education, and I am as excited about the promise of possibilities for breaking past old models as I am challenged by pockets of resistance (sometimes) offered by reigning institutions.

Well, in light of the conversation I mention above, here is a moment of celebration: The European Graduate School is sharing online video lectures from some of the best authors, lecturers, and philosophers of the 20 and 21st century.

EGS introduces itself online as "facilitating creative breakthroughs and theoretical paradigm shifts" and bringing graduate students together with "the visionaries and philosophers of the media world who inspire learning about art, philosophy, communications, film, literature, internet, web and cyberspace studies from a cross-disciplinary perspective."

Video lectures available for viewing include such notable writers as Slavoj Zizek on "Happiness," Jean Baudrillard on the "Finalities of Change," Victor J. Vitanza on "Being in Relation," Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky on "21st Century Aesthetics," and Shelley Jackson on "Trans-Literary Styles" - these representing only an appetizer in light of the many other and notable lectures posted there. Here's an open door into some of the best the academy has to offer!

Interested? You can go HERE to check out the 1999-2003 lectures available onsite with EGS, or browse the list below for viewing opportunities EGS has made available through YouTube:

Jacques Derrida at the EGS, 2004 - Part 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Jean Baudrillard at the EGS, 2002 - Part 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Jean Baudrillard at the EGS, 2004

Slavoj Žižek - Rules, Race, and Mel Gibson, 2006 - Part 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Judith Butler at the EGS, 2006 - Part 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Lectures from authors and filmmakers: Atom Egoyan, Peter Greenaway, John Waters and Julian Barnes.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Worth Re-Posting

tip 'o the hat to Norm at onegoodmove