Monday, February 26, 2007

A Celebration

I'm surprised that I have already created seventy posts in this blog; the previous posting was number seventy. I can see this blog continuing for a little while longer. Sometime around Memorial Day, after the semester ends and after I get back out to the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery to take pictures of the tombstones, I plan on adding a posting about the Kidder Massacre, Sappa Creek, and Beecher Island. Each event in Kansas history may have its own posting. The location of Beecher Island is no longer in Kansas, but it remains a part of Kansas history despite its location in what is now Colorado.

I also should think about adding reviews of movies and books, such as the book I finished a few weeks ago, that is, Barry Lopez' Arctic Dreams.


I recently have been listening to Anouar Brahem's Astrakan Cafe and Conte de l'Incroyable Amour, both of which my wife gave me for Valentine's Day. Brahem plays the oud, which is considered as the Middle Eastern version of the lute. Some critics consider Brahem's music to be more subdued than that of other musicians who play the oud; this difference is credited to the influence of jazz and western classical music. I am still in the midst of discovering this music. One of the selections from Astrakan Cafe, accompanied by photographs of Istanbul, appears at this link to YouTube . Brahem was raised in Tunisia, in North Africa, where he returned after living in France for several years; he currently tours extensively in Europe.

Those of you who prefer a more domestic version of Middle Eastern music might investigate Salaam . This band played in Kansas City at the Nelson Gallery of Art a couple of years ago. Their music is quite good.

I advocate discovering more about the Middle Eastern, and North African, culture through music and, perhaps, through the food if you live within easy access of a Middle Eastern/North African restaurant. It's through this acquaintance that we can begin to acquire understanding and acceptance, which are things that we in this country need much more of.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Mutterings of an Exhausted Mind

Before this most recent warm spell, we had a bout of cold weather last week in Kansas. Pictures of the snow appear in an earlier posting on this blog. When I was between grading projects last weekend, I managed to get outside to take more pictures of the ice on the Missouri River. I’m pleased with the picture I’m including because of the reflection on the water. I used an aperture setting and increased the f-stop so as to improve the depth of field. I had been having problems with my depth of field, particularly in the pictures I took of the Canadian geese, one of which is included in this blog. Through practice and by playing with the settings on my camera, I managed to muddle my way through this hurdle in my quest to take better pictures.

Although some of my pictures appear in this blog, I have been using most of the ones I’ve taken since last September in my screen saver, occasionally pulling out a new one every few days for my wallpaper. Something like 2,000 files make up my screen saver now. I’m not the kind of person who uses the screen savers and wallpapers that are included as part of the programming from Microsoft. I much prefer to make my own. All of the pre-installed screen savers had been deleted from the HP Pavilion that I gave away to a friend of my son’s more than a year ago. Eventually, in another year or so, I’ll be moving some of the older folders in the screen saver to a jump drive or a CD for storage.

I used to download pictures from Google to use in my screen saver before I had access to a digital camera. As an insomniac, I used to take time late at night to surf the Internet in my desire to create my own screen saver. Some of the ones I’ve found of places like Istanbul, Turkey and Adak, Alaska, where I used to live as a Navy brat, remain on my computer. If I had kept a log of where I got them, I might have uploaded some of them to this blog.


Most of my time of late has been spent grading. I’m not as prompt as I used to be in returning my students’ essays, so I have been working especially hard this past week so as to return three sets of writing assignments. Another two sets await me before I get to the next rotation of assignments, that is, the more current ones. If I had entered a discipline in math or science, it would have been possible to have my students’ work graded by computer.

Someone of the conservative persuasion once said that the grading in a discipline like English is entirely subjective. I have mentioned earlier how that misconception exists among students who don’t realize that experienced writing teachers can easily reach agreement about an essay earning an A or less. My assignments are all graded according to pre-established criteria. Academic writing has certain characteristics which need to be met, such as smoothly integrating quotes and documenting sources, not to mention the areas of major concern, i.e., focus, development, organization. I would like to see someone without my training and experience grade five sets of essays in two weeks time and type up end comments justifying the grade for each student as well. That person would also need to be around later when the students start complaining about their grades and be able to meet face-to-face with a student so as tell that student why his/her essay earned a C- or a D and not a B or an A. Let’s see that person smugly say then that all grading in writing classes is subjective.

Grading a literature essay is no different because each assignment is composed of certain criteria. A line-by-line explication of Dulce Et Decorum Est or Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73 (That Time of Year Thou Mayest in Me Behold) can easily fail if the student generalizes or has no evidence from the text to support his/her ideas. A good essay uses an examination of meter to reinforce meaning because the words that convey the meaning receive the stresses. Similarly, when an established pattern of iambic feet suddenly becomes spondaic, the alteration is done for a reason.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Cabin Fever in Kansas

Winter where I live in Kansas is about to end after thirty-six days of below freezing temperatures. There is a slight chance of another storm around the end of the month, according to the weather forecasters.
I have seen snow in March at various times in Kansas. These late-winter snows are of short duration before the southern winds and warmer temperatures return. The Kanza Indians, the indigenous people in this area before they were moved south to Oklahoma, were known as people of the south wind because it is this south wind that is most predominate in Kansas during all four seasons of the year.

A quick moving storm brought about four inches of snow to my area on Tuesday; it has proven more troublesome for those people living east of Missouri because it eventually acquired much more strength.

When not working and when not reading the news reports and commentary on the Internet relating to the next possible blunder in the Middle East, I have been feeding my head by rediscovering some of the jazz CDs I have collected, such as Jan Garbarek’s It’s OK to Listen to the Gray Voice, a collection of songs based on the poems of Tomas Transtromer. It’s a great album. Although unfamiliar with Tomas Transtromer, except for what Robert Bly said about him in Leaping Poetry, I find much pleasure in these songs based on his poems. I often compose on the computer keyboard when listening to this album; the music, however, causes me to stop and give it my full attention at times. I remember hearing this album when taking a shower before my evening poetry workshop on Wednesdays or Thursdays, depending on the semester, when I was at Oklahoma State and studying poetry with Mark Cox. I had just spent a couple of hours writing a poem and was usually intoxicated from having been engaged in the writing process.

Currently, I’m listening to Jan Garbarek-Bobo Stenson’s Witchi-Tai-To. It was released in 1974 and remains a timeless recording. I have been fascinated with the bass work of Palle Danielson since I heard this album yesterday for the first time in six months or a year. My stereo isn’t that great. I bought the Kenwood amplifier (KA 880D) and turntable through E-Bay a couple of years ago and then added a Kenwood double cassette player that I had gotten at a garage sale a year before and had been storing in a closet until the day I could afford a component system. Once I got the amplifier and turntable, I picked up an Audio Source equalizer for a hundred bucks at Best Buy. Originally, I had gotten speakers and a Sharp CD player with the amplifier and turntable through E-Bay, all for a hundred bucks before shipping. The speakers were damaged in shipment, so my wife was kind enough to let me have the Pioneer speakers that she had for the system she wanted to donate to Salvation Army. I also replaced the CD player last summer by ordering a more recent Pioneer player through E-Bay. Finally, at fifty-something years of age, I now have my own component system, what I had wanted for a good thirty-five years or so. Sometime in the future, barring the collapse of the American economy under the Bush administration, I plan on replacing the turntable, but it’s isn’t a top priority in my life.

Another example of excellent bass work is Coltrane’s Ole. The title track contains two basses, one plucked and one bowed. Long before the Beatles made their trip to India, Coltrane was influenced by the music of India and incorporated elements of traditional Indian music on this title track, despite the name of the song. The opening bass work to “Dahomey Dance” on this same album is particularly fascinating because of its complexity. I have not been successful in determining whether the opening bass line is maintained throughout the song.

Although it may seem otherwise, I am not a strong advocate of consumerism. When I was much younger, I rebelled against my parents’ affluence by seeking a life with few material comforts. If I had grown up during the 1930’s and had known extreme poverty, like my parents did, my attitude toward material things would have been much different. For the longest time, I didn’t know how to drive and relied on either public transportation or my own feet. Before I decided to return to college, I used to think nothing of walking away from a job, without giving notice and without a concern for when I might find another job. I once risked going homeless because I was out of work and couldn’t pay rent for two months.

One day I would like to have a few more creature comforts, such as a recent automobile and a house with a bit more room inside and outside. I also fantasize about one day creating my own home theater system, one that I put together myself, using various components like an amplifier, equalizer, DVD player, and multiple full-size speakers, instead of relying on the already created systems available at places like Wal-Mart. My current employment arrangement, the heavy weight of student loans, and the prospect of becoming too old to work or having to stop work because of ill-health makes me one of those people that James Howard Kunstler describes as “praying to Jesus (or, in my case, the pagan equivalent) for a winning lottery ticket.”

Maybe I practice escapism. Finding pleasure in music and dreaming of a more comfortable life while still attempting to use less of the earth’s resources than some Americans are coping mechanisms against the insanity of a country in which my voice is one of three hundred million.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Ice on the Missouri River

Not completely covered, the Missouri River has been littered with chunks of ice making their way south to Kansas City. Tuesday was a great day to get outside because of the above freezing weather. Unlike places like Connecticut or New York, the weather here in Kansas is marked by rapid changes. After reaching 57 degrees today, following a night in the teens, the temperature has shifted again and will reach only the mid-twenties or so on Wednesday.

Some of the graduates of the MFA program at Iowa have mentioned the breaking up of the ice on the Iowa River and what a jubilant event such an occurrence was. I haven’t seen the Missouri River totally ice-covered in all of my years of living in this part of Kansas. I’m sure that the Missouri River has been frozen at some point, making it possible to walk across the river from Kansas to Missouri, but I don’t know when that event happened last.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Pew Internet Survey and Blogging

As I was surfing the Internet recently, I stumbled across the results of a survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Projects regarding bloggers and blogging. Based on the research, I’m in the minority because more than half of all bloggers are less than 30 years of age. Far fewer people my age, that is, 50 and older, engage in blogging. Bloggers my age also tend to present information while those younger bloggers--those younger than 29--seek “to meet new people.” Despite the interest of the young, more than half of those surveyed report that they blog for themselves instead of blogging in search of an audience.

The great majority of those surveyed report that they have been blogging for less than three years; more than three-quarters of those surveyed also say that they will continue to blog a year from now. In the year that I have been blogging, I have seen many people in the so-called blogosphere either grow silent for a lengthy period of time or stop blogging altogether. The Pew Internet survey reported that many people think of blogging as a hobby and use this form of communication as a means of expressing oneself creatively. Clifford Stoll in “Isolated by the Internet” notes that the relationships generated through the Internet are less reliable and easily broken. It stands to reason why someone might think of blogging as a means of expressing oneself without a concern for audience.

As a writing teacher, however, I don’t really understand how someone can write without an awareness of audience. I imagine that there is someone reading what I write, and I aim to make myself as concrete and as clear as possible. Writing concretely should be a goal for anyone who writes. I also think that there should be a certain form of pride in what one writes and if one writes sloppily, without a concern for standard written English, it would be difficult to look back at what one has written with any form of satisfaction. I confess that I occasionally go back to previous postings of mine and read what I wrote, usually when I discover through my site meter that someone has accessed that page through a search engine. I critique what I wrote, look for holes in my argument, wonder at what the person discovered, and sometimes marvel at how easily I can make my way through my writing. I think it was E.B. White who said that writing is the hardest work he has ever done. I can’t think of many other things more satisfying or pleasurable. Training someone to think in sentences and paragraphs is what we writing teachers emphasize. Writing, unlike so many other activities, can be revised and reworked before it is uploaded for public consumption, making it possible to achieve clarity, despite how difficult finding the words might have been initially.