Monday, January 30, 2012

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

What an incredible and incredibly important documentary. This is what patriotism looks like: being guided by a profound responsibility for doing what’s right, and then doing it, despite great personal risk. Certainly Daniel Ellsberg could have taken the high ground by walking away from his job at the Pentagon after realizing the Nixon administration was lying to the American public about the horror in Vietnam. But he stayed long enough to leak reams of documents, and his actions helped end the war, although it took awhile.

We’re a little slow on the uptake, I guess. Yet I feel hopeful for our times. Sometimes. The Occupy movement is still in place. A good percentage of Americans seem to be pushing back against industrial food. I see evidence of locally owned business support. There is outrage about the treatment of workers in China and elsewhere who are making our stuff. Even talk of an Apple boycott… wow. Just a few weeks ago the word Apple was accompanied by the singing of angels.

I’m still worried, though. By worried I mean terrified. I was just reading about the invasive Burmese pythons now eating up to 99% of the raccoons, deer, opossums, and bobcats in the Everglades. There may be hundreds of thousands by now, after (notes one article) Hurricane Andrew blew the lid off pet shops in the early 1990s. I saw picture after picture of these massive snakes, swallowing everything whole – there’s a photo of one that swallowed an alligator and burst in half. The fear is that they’ll skip Florida and colonize the entire South, grazing southern Ohio. And who knows what climate change does to that equation.

Perfect symbol for America today. These individuals and organizations have gotten so big and hungry they will gorge until they self-destruct. My liberal friends are furious at corporations, and with good reason. I am too. They’re not just self-destructing – they’re taking us with them. Here in Youngstown they want to frack beneath Mill Creek Park, the very treasure of our community.

But it’s not just corporations. Our government is in on it, too: misusing power, leading us along with misdirection and euphemism. Someone told me today “I’m not interested in politics.” I completely understand, and I might have said the same thing at his age. But what Ellsberg’s story shows is one person walking into enlightenment, and the way that changes everything. Some may argue that it's wrong to leak government secrets. I say that depends. If the government is deceiving us, we should know. If, one by one, we're being swallowed whole by the machinery of war or profit, I say we should know.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Poetry Book Discussion Book Swap

Sorry, sorry about another change in plan. Yusef Komunyakaa's The Chameleon Couch is only out in hardback, so we're going to read Tim Seibles's Fast Animal for Feb. and The Chameleon Couch in March. Fast Animal is available from Etruscan Press, and copies are here in the English Dept. at YSU if you're in the neighborhood. 

Hope to see you at 7:00 Tues. 7 Feb. at the Lemon Grove over good Seibles words and plates of hummus. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

No Impact Man and Avatar

My boyfriend and I each pick out Netflix movies for our weekends. We are that… old. Still, it’s fun.

This weekend I chose a documentary my mom recommended – No Impact Man. It’s about a guy in New York City who tries to live without causing any negative environmental impact. At all. This is going to be heavy-handed, I thought. My boyfriend brought Avatar. Talk about psychological whiplash, I thought.

I was twice wrong. I loved No Impact Man – mostly, I think, because he, Colin Beavan, and his wife, Michelle Conlin, are so likeable. Isn’t she great? I kept asking my boyfriend. I mean, the way they talk things out, and the way she goes along with this crazy experiment, not because she completely gets it, but because she loves him is so cool, but we can see it’s hard for her.

And I had tuned out the Avatar previews and didn’t know about the environmental theme. I appreciated the strong female and gentle male characters, too. The imagined world is spectacularly beautiful. So these two movies made a good pair.

It was good timing for me. I’ve been trying to be a Lower Impact Woman of sorts. I discovered that I could turn my shower down by half to reduce the water stream. I’ve been shrinkwrapping windows and walking when I can. I mouse around in the dark at night, only turning on lights when I need them. I keep my house at 60, and instead of turning the heat up during the day, I drag a space heater from room to room.

I’m still consuming too much, don’t get me wrong. Today I threw away produce because I lost track of it and it spoiled in my refrigerator. Ugh. I drive when I don’t feel like walking, despite my fancy new bus pass, and I still shower every day. But I try to keep moving forward.

I went through a serious funk recently, though, when I was faced, again, with the amount of resources used by the fracking industry. Fracking is on everyone’s mind here in Youngstown, and was even before our earthquakes made international news.

What can my puny water savings mean when my shower water goes back into the wastewater stream, yet the fracking water, millions and millions of gallons, is loaded with toxins, and injected deep underground where we’ll never get it back? I might walk the mile plus to campus, but thousands of truck trips deliver equipment, chemicals and all kinds of stuff to each well. It makes an individual’s efforts feel futile and ridiculous.

But Colin Beavan reminded me why it’s important. At some point our country will realize we’re in crisis, and we all will have to make enormous changes in the way we live. And as much as we’ve already done that, because we love this planet so much, will help transition us into our future. Many of us will have imagined or tried living without this or that, and found ways to reduce our consumption. And sometimes it even improves our well being. Beavan talks about having lost 20 pounds from biking, and being a better parent because they unplugged the t.v. And if we reduce our energy consumption significantly, we’ll be in a much better place to negotiate for renewables, so we don’t end up in some smoked-out wasteland like the forest people in Avatar.

I’m planning to walk to campus tomorrow, in the rain, and although I like to give myself an out if I need one, it’s nice to be reminded what’s important.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Apple Pineapple Pie

I have used the same shortening-based pie crust recipe for... well, ever. That's unusual for me - I like mixing it up. So I was pleased to see this pie recipe came with its own butter crust. The dough is thick and unresponsive - I love how nimble a shortening crust is - but baked up, oh my. It's got a lovely crust crust, that is, a thin, crispy toothiness at the very top, and it's flaky (in a good way). I recently saw that my favorite organic butter is "recommended" by the wonderful food snobs at Cook's.

I don't know where I got this recipe - it looks like it was clipped from the newspaper, and has likely been in my untried recipes for a long time. It had a different name, but I loved the sound and rhythm of apple pineapple pie. It seems like a strange combination of fruits, but it works, and the cranberries give it a pretty pinkness.

3 c. flour
1 tsp. salt
1 c. butter, chilled
Cut butter into flour/salt and fork in 8 T. ice water. 

1 c. raw cranberries, fresh or frozen
5 1/2 c. sliced apples
1/4 c. canned crushed pineapple, drained
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. white sugar
1 tsp. grated orange peel
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg

Preheat oven to 400. 

In food processor, mix cranberries, 1/2 c. apple slices, pineapple, sugars, spices. Process until chopped but not mushy.

Spread half the mixture on bottom of pie crust. Arrange remaining apple slices over this and cover with remaining cranberry mixture. Top with remaining crust, sealing edges well and cutting steam vents. (Don't brush with sugar or milk or anything.) Bake 15 min. then lower oven to 350, bake 35-45 min. or until apples are tender.   

Thursday, January 12, 2012

This country's strange contradictions

I'm reading an article in The New Yorker about a murder trial, and the defendant was just "led from the courtroom to a suicide-prevention cell. Three days later he was sentenced to death."

Our national ironies were already on my mind. Public radio has been running stories about states paying settlements to victims of forced sterilization policies that lasted into the 1970s. And about virulent single-issue anti-abortion rights voters in these same states. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Feb. Poetry Book Discussion Group: Yusef Komunyakaa's The Chameleon Couch: Poems

Yusef Komunyakaa is coming to Ohio! Here's the blurb from our friends at the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State:

March 29, 2012

Reading by Yusef Komunyakaa 

7:30 p.m.
Room 214
Oscar Ritchie Hall
Kent State University
Yusef KomunyakaaYusef Komunyakaa is the author of numerous books of poems, including The Chameleon Couch, Warhorses, Taboo, and Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize. Komunyakaa is the recipient of many awards and prizes, including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and the William Faulkner Prize. He served as a Chancellor for the Academy of American Poets from 1999 to 2005 and is currently Professor and Distinguished Senior Poet at New York University.
We are thrilled and will be reading his book The Chameleon Couch for our Feb. discussion. Hope you can come.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The View From Castle Rock by Alice Munro

I just finished listening to this collection of stories on CD. I had read and taught the first chapter (from a volume of Best American Short Stories) which imagines a group of Scottish immigrants on their way from the Ettrick Valley to Canada in the 18th century. These are the ancestors of Munro, and after lingering on several scenes of her own life, she circles back around to these courageous travelers. We find out when and where they died, nearly always too soon. 

Munro is so skilled at letting you watch the human psyche tick-tick, whether it's a person wholly imagined by her, or entirely known. Her description of the landscape of rural Ontario is gorgeous. She journeys to Joliet, Illinois, to find the grave of an ancestor, and I'm startled to hear her sketch a place I know.

This collection of stories holds together a thread of a way of thinking; that is, the sometimes brutish, practical, hard working Laidlaws shape their descendents' mindsets. Munro's is a tender rendering.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


Last night my discussion group took up the topic of imagination - what is it? Is it learned or innate? Isnt that a cool topic? We skipped around – artistic creativity, problem solving, empathy, and the way a writer manipulates a reader into imagining violence or sex.

It was a terrific discussion, and it got me thinking. Writers aren’t the only ones working to spike imagination. That’s the whole point of advertising: to get us imagining we’ll have more time, money or happiness if we eat at McDonald’s, shop at Wal-Mart or buy our clothes at the Gap. And it’s not just for-profits. The “Be All You Can Be” campaign is taxpayer money at work. I think we’re missing a great opportunity to spark the national imagination.

I imagine an America with a tiny fraction of the military we have now. “Be All You Can Be” isn’t about the Army – it’s about developing talents for our country – being a great teacher, entrepreneur, elected representative, window cleaner. Or jump out of airplanes – to fight fires. Go overseas - in the Peace Corps. Instead of housing an international killing program, our military bases are disaster response sites. Local governments have a stake in them. We have fewer enemies. And we better use the energy, courage, commitment and love of country of our young people.

That means we have less access to petroleum, but that’s ok. We have slashed the use of the car. More people are on foot and bike. Bus ridership is up, so there are more buses and the buses make more frequent trips, but that’s ok, because the buses are full, and they get something like 271 miles to the gallon, compared to the number of cars that would be on the road. We needed more sidewalks, bike lanes and car and bike park ports. That cost money, but fewer cars meant the roads are less chewed up, and people are healthier because they’re walking more, and those both save money. Plus all we saved from shrinking the military, remember? And instead of innovation being funneled into weapons, we started using imagination to create mass transit that was more energy efficient, including an electric train made of reclaimed soda bottles that runs on solar power. Im so proud to ride it because it was built here, and a team of engineers and entrepreneurs took the idea to Africa, making transportation more possible with a minimum increase of fossil fuels.

I’ve lived in Cleveland, but the worst traffic I’ve encountered is the nightmarish Hwy 224 here in Youngstown. Miles of stores and parking lots and lanes of drivers going one short green light and then idling at the red. That’s the best our imaginations can do? How about a train. I walk, bike, bus or drive the short distance to the hub, jump on the train. I text, read, drink coffee, jump off at my destination. And while we’re creating, let’s mix the retail stores with health clinics, gyms, throw in a community college, a public pool and skateboard park. Let’s add housing in back, so lots of people can walk to work. We've freed up all that parking lot space for chalk art, a giant hopscotch park, roller blade lanes, a summer-long kite festival and a celebration of books, like the Miami Book Fair - tent after tent of books. Lets dig some of the parking lot up for a huge community garden, and lets bring artists in to fill the gardens with sculptured trellises, scarecrows and spinning things. So many jobs in all of that, so many chances for kids to get exercise and meet kids from all over the city.

A bit too utopian? I would argue that we’ve done much bigger things. Have you read Steven Ambrose’s book about the birth of the transcontinental railroad? Holy moly, talk about imagination! Bringing commuter trains to Youngstown wouldn’t even risk lives, not the way the Army does when it sends kids out to do the work of protecting a supply of petroleum. Our highway system took a tremendous amount of imagination and resources to build. And now we’re dependent on the car. We think of it as freedom, but it’s not. I read recently that a car costs $7500.00 in an average year, in addition to the purchase. For folks who are living well, that might be no big deal. But with half of America living near the poverty line, it’s squeezing money that already doesn’t cover housing, food and health care. That’s not freedom. I’d be willing to pay a lot of that money in taxes for more transportation options. And if I need a car, I’ll use my share in a car that several people own. 
My mom has a friend, Igor, who says Dream no small dream. I agree. We may fall short, but we’ll fall further if we have a goal and work toward it. I think thats part of our national problem - we dont imagine the future. I envision a country that’s free of racism, and really means it, that respects its diversity of culture, background, foods, festivals, languages. That subsidizes healthy food. That has weatherized old buildings, and builds new with a high efficiency standard. That has reasoned political debate and limits corporate money in politics. That sends fewer people to prisons. That provides an equal education to every child, and equal access to health care to every person. That is a world leader in reducing carbon output, poverty, and preventable illness. We would save so much money and suffering in the long run. And really, are any of these harder than going to the moon, building the Panama Canal or Brooklyn Bridge, vaccinating every child against polio, putting libraries in every community?

We are only limited by our national imagination. Yoko Ono says Imagine Peace. What do you imagine?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Let's Change the Legal Age

Occasionally my students will bring up how unfair it is that a person can go to war at 18 yet not order a beer in a bar. They're right. I propose we change the legal age for going to war to 21.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Joy Addict by James Harms

I love this wonderful, wonderful book of poems. Some of the poems have an old movie, glittery slow motion to them, like these stanzas from “Wherever You Hang Your Head”:

I can see the stripes

of light across my father’s face,
the blinds angled behind him, foothills
ragged through the slats

like a picture torn in strips
then reassembled. My sister
has her knees drawn up

beneath her on the chair and eats
a bowl of olives. Now
she is laughing into her napkin.

Isn’t that the way memory works? The little clips we replay, the odd details no one else remembers. The way we can never go back there.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Here’s To a Year of Reading

If Americans read more, I contend, it would help us solve nearly every problem. I’ve been thinking a lot about education, but there’s so much more.

When we encounter a new piece of information, we store it in short-term memory. If I learn something in 7th grade, but don’t bump into it again until 11th grade, I won’t remember it. But let’s say I learn about the Revolutionary War in 7th grade. My teacher explains the political players, the economic forces, some of the major events, and the results. If I read Johnny Tremain, I imagine life in the colonies through the eyes of a boy. Later I might read a book or article, fiction or non-fiction, that sheds light on slavery, England, the founding fathers, Westward expansion, Native Americans, health and medicine… I come at that same topic from many points of view. Then when I hear about it in 11th grade, I have not only a long-term memory but a richer understanding and maybe even some opinions, and my 11th grade class will feel more relevant and stimulating.

If I don’t read at home, I won’t remember much of what I learned in school, and it won’t become usable information. It will feel like a big waste of time. And I will not be good at reading. It’s a skill, and it will stay hard, making me more likely to be a lifelong non-reader. If I go to college, it will be more challenging than it needs to be.

I know some people don’t have time to read, but I would say if someone watches t.v., that’s reading time. Here’s my argument for why it’s worth it. Becoming enlightened enough to put our present in perspective with our past and future is only one thing. We make huge decisions in our lives, and reading could make all the difference.

What if every young person considering the military read about our current and recent wars, the lives of veterans, how the military works, and what other civilian options might offer similar opportunities? Those who went on to enlist would be much better for it. And because their parents read along (I wouldn’t want my son or daughter to join a military I knew little about), our national conversation would be enriched. We spend a lot of money on our military, at the expense of much else, and it is worth our time to understand. And if we’re using slogans like “Freedom isn’t free,” we should have the concrete information to back that up.

Hell, we don’t even have the information we need to keep ourselves healthy. We know everything there is to know about McDonald’s products from watching thousands of ads. Time well spent? But we don’t know where our food comes from, how it’s produced or subsidized, or what would prevent a third of our children born after 2000 from becoming diabetic. Kids should be reading about that too. Television stations that rely on McDonald’s advertising should not be trusted as a source for factual information on food.

We don’t read about political issues, so we end up voting for people by feeling. That leaves us wide open to manipulation. Advertisers are paid to study us to find out how to influence us. We should all know enough about economics to engage in discussions with those who don’t agree with us, so our national conversation is a robust political debate, leading to more informed voting. After all, most of politics is the allocation of resources. (And if we expect our legislators to compromise, we should be able to talk to each other without any strangling with the bare hands. Even if, ahem, there is occasional strong language.)

I think Americans don’t read enough about energy, water, mineral resources, air, land use, wealth distribution, financial planning, taxes, innovation, geopolitics, religion, psychology, even dogs – but we do read about crazy people (“Man sets his own hair on fire”) and celebrities. Why do we know more about the Kardashians than the Supreme Court?

Because we don’t read. A person who hasn’t been a lifelong reader likely won’t pick up a magazine full of articles on climate change. By staying on the candy level of reading, we give up our ability to shape our national conversation, and to take the best care of ourselves and each other.

Our literacy rates are plummeting. Many times I’ve come across the chilling statistic that 80% of American families don’t buy or read a book in any given year. Yet families spend up to $100 each month on cable channels. I’m not sure if there ever was a golden age of reading, but I think not giving the next generation the tools to understand the complex problems of our age means they will be less able to solve them. We are handing off a mess.

It wouldn’t be hard to start an upward climb in reading. When it comes to gifts, I love giving books and magazines. For the baby shower, I like to give the mother a book on pregnancy and newborns, the baby Where the Wild Things Are or Dr. Seuss, a Reading Rainbow book or Caldecott winner, some Boynton board books or a writer/illustrator new to the publishing scene. (Newborn clothes are outgrown, but books can last generations.) How about this gift for a preschooler: an empty refrigerator box, a pack of markers, a book about pirates and Treasure Island? Or cut open and tape together paper bags, trace their bodies with chalk pastels and give them a book about what’s under all that skin. Best present ever for a six-year-old? Ed Emberley’s thumb print books, a few packs of stamp pad ink and a couple Sharpies. For older kids, computer games that teach geography and history are terrific, and they can dovetail beautifully with a Dorling Kindersley book on castles or flags. I’m talking serious fun here, but also learning and literacy that Mario Brothers can’t offer.

I’ve seen picture books made of gorgeous poetry like “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening.” Speaking of poetry, Shel Silverstein is the best. Magazines for kids are amazing! Check out Kids Discover and Cricket. Look for old sets of encyclopedias at rummage sales. Much of the information has changed, but there’s no pleasure like lying on the floor with the L volume: the Leaning Tower of Pisa, lemmings, lemons, Leonardo da Vinci. What book or magazine to buy a teenager? Science Illustrated or The Best American Short Stories. Get a copy for yourself and read them together. (Or ask the librarian for a recommendation. Shell be thrilled.) If you ask for a Christmas list, maybe ask for a Christmas book list. Instead of Toys for Tots, how about Books for Tots? Instead of a pasta basket at the chance auction, maybe a few books and a gift certificate for the local independent bookstore.

I realize if you’ve gotten this far in my ramblings, you’re probably my friend, and your house is full of books. Maybe you read Writers Almanac every day, in which writer after writer talks about reading as a kid, growing up in a house of readers, or being sick or poor and finding escape or comfort or relief in books. One writer’s dad required each kid to bring a research question to the dinner table. My cousin kept grabbing his laptop at dinner recently, looking up questions that came up in our conversation. He went to a great college, took a semester abroad, served two years in the Peace Corps and now works for an N.G.O. in DC. It’s not all because he was a reader, but I bet it made a huge difference.