Sunday, July 26

Black Hills Road Trip

There are those who believe that there is nothing to see as you drive west on I-90 through southern Minnesota into South Dakota. Perhaps to some the miles and miles and miles of corn and soy might seem like "nothing," but there are moments of exceptions and there is something mesmerizing about those rows of corn. Homesteads. Some newer or at least well-kept; some quite old with barns leaning towards the earth as they slowly disintegrate. Windmills and windmill "farms." Bee hives, though I'm not quite sure why the hives are so close to road. It is, to me, miles of unwinding and peacefulness.

My friend and I called it a driving day on Saturday, July 18 when we got to Sioux Falls, SD though we got the last room in a Microtel because of a softball tournament and the Sioux Falls JazzFest. I would have stayed up to listen, but I was too tired. What is it about riding and driving, listening to and singing along with classic rock that can be so exhausting? Rhetorical question, of course.

On the road early on Sunday, July 19 as we headed to Mitchell, SD and the Corn Palace. Laugh if you will, but it was quite fun. Each year there is a new theme for the Corn Palace; this year is America's Destinations. It takes about 275,000 ears of corn to decorate the Corn Palace each year and I can only imagine how many hours to tear down the remnant of the prior year's theme and begin to build the new year's theme. Then we were off to Wall Drug in Wall, SD. Wall Drug is unabashedly a tourist attraction with 76,000 square feet of tsotchkes though there are some real products. I did manage to resist buying a cane with a hidden sword. I've noticed that's not an item that can be purchased through the Wall Drug web site.

We decided not to wander through the Badlands on the way out, so we arrived at Hisega Lodge around 5P MT or so. The lodge is a wonderful place with a delightful history. It's well off Hwy 44 on a road that winds back into the hills. There's a creek that burbles under the road and near the lodge which simply adds to its charm and that peaceful, easy feeling. Carol and Kenn Duncan are marvelous and charming people. She's a fabulous cook who will give you more food than you can possibly eat but you won't want to stop eating what she's given you. And the coffee is very good; hot and ready at 7A. Kenn is a teacher, runner, drummer, road biker with a deliciously quirky sense of humor. The staff--Sheila, MJ, and Carrie--are lovely, friendly women.

At breakfast on Monday, July 20, we ate with Ron Hagen, another guest who was leaving that day. Ron is the founder and CEO of The Hagen Group and was back in the area for his 50th high school reunion and he had some wonderful information and insight on what to see and do. So after we gorged ourselves on a fruit salad with yogurt, strawberry rhubarb cobbler, and an egg, chicken, and artichoke frittata, we waddled to gather our stuff so we could head out to explore.
We drove west and south to go to the Crazy Horse Memorial. It astonished me to learn the project started in 1946 with the selection of the location. The carving of this mountain is far from over! It's an extraordinary endeavor and well worth visiting as well as supporting. There is a museum and plenty of opportunity to get a sense of the history not only of the place, but Crazy Horse and his people as well as the sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, and his dream for this tremendous carving. The white sculpted replica that gives you an up close idea of what the carving will look like whenever it's completed is a mere 1/34 of the actual size! After our visit at Crazy Horse, we went on into Custer State Park to take the wildlife loop from west to east. We saw antelope, elk, "wild" burros, prairie dogs, and buffalo. My favorite sign? "Do not approach any rattlesnakes." People have to be told that? Really?

Ron had told us to travel through Custer State Park and the wildlife loop from west to east so that we could take Iron Mountain Road from south to north heading up towards Keystone and Mount Rushmore. The reason is that there are tunnels along the road that are designed in such a way to give drivers great views of Mount Rushmore. The tunnels themselves are pretty cool, too. And then on to Mount Rushmore itself, which is truly impressive. There's a wonderful museum there along with the ubiquitous gift shop where you can get Mount Rushmore in varying sizes. We did the trek that allowed us to see the monument as closely as one might; there were some information signs along the route, but also a museum that offers more information about the project and the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum.

We decided to head north and west on Tuesday, July 21 to go to Devil's Tower. Devil’s Tower is a remarkable place and was America’s first monument. It was established as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. There are several theories about the how and why of Devil’s Tower, but that didn’t really matter to me. I was there to enjoy the view. There is a nice hike around the base of the Tower and then another hike, Joyner Ridge, from which this photo was taken. There were a few climbers on the east face of the Tower the day we were there, which was cool to watch but not something I’d ever want to try.

Wednesday was a biking day and opted to trek part of the George Mickelson Trail. We rented bikes with fat nubby tires and weird suspension. Definitely not road bikes, but probably not full-fledge mountain bikes. We left from Hill City and rode up to the Mystic Trailhead. It was a gorgeous day for a ride. We did about 30 miles as an out and back. The first 8 miles had been a gradual uphill with a 4% grade, but that meant the last 8 miles were a lovely gradual downhill. That night we had dinner at a place on 385 called the Sugar Shack. It’s a very casual place (Bikers Welcome!) with great burgers. By far one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.

Thursday was a hiking day. We tried to do a hike near the lodge. Carol walked with us to point out the beginning of the trail and she tried to explain where to find the fire trails to get to what she described as amazing views, but we couldn’t find the trail start so we opted to go to one of the several trailheads we’d seen and go from there. We’re clearly not expeditioners because we had trouble figuring out which way was north. But it worked out well because we found a nice place to take a break before we headed back. Then we went to the Pactola Reservoir and found a place to put our feet in the water. It was cold and really relaxing. That night we went into town for the Rapid City Summer Nights event; it was a local band playing so it was basically a street party with two-steeping and some incredible fiddle playin'. It was a lot of fun.

Friday meant it was time to head home, which we did reluctantly. Megan and Brandon were leaving that morning as well. They had arrived on Monday as newlyweds; the lodge was a wedding present from Brandon’s mom. I thought that was kind of awkward, but they seemed delighted to be there. They are a sweet, young couple and a real pleasure to hang out with.

We finally got in the car and on the road by about 10A MT, but decided to go a bit south out of Rapid City to drive through the Badlands. We missed the road that would have taken us more directly through the Badlands, but what we saw on a rather warm day was enough for me. I have a much better understanding of why it’s called the Badlands: hot, stark, desolate. We did a quick 20-minute loop that gave us a bit of a closer view (and again saw the “Do not approach rattlesnakes!”) sign and that was plenty. Besides, I've seen hoodoos in Bryce Canyon and lighting across the canyons near Canyon Reef in Utah. THAT was awesome.

We made it as far as Albert Lea, MN on Friday. Had a bit of trouble finding a hotel room because Albert Lea was hosting the Bus Roadeo. I am absolutely serious about that. This is, apparently, a pretty big deal and sponsored or supported by the American Public Transportation Association. Who knew?

It was a great trip. Truly relaxing and enjoyable. I was totally exhausted by the time I got home, but happy to be so.

Thursday, July 9

Reflection, contemplation

Today I learned that a very dear friend of mine may have only about 4 months to live. She has been battling an aggressive cancer for quite some time now, but managed to finish an award-winning dissertation in spite of it. We were hopeful that an earlier treatment would make a difference and she seemed to go into remission for a bit, but the cancer returned and certainly with a vengeance.

It's not just that Janet is only a few months older than I, it's just that Janet is such an incredibly remarkable person. She is so bright, so capable. She is incredibly quick-witted, funny. But she is also a remarkably insightful person. I think of how much she has to offer and wonder how it could be possible that she has such a dreadful prognosis. And like the hundreds if not thousands who know her, I pray for a miracle.

A mutual friend said that Janet is putting her affairs in order--giving things away, having her sister sell some things on eBay. She has packed her office at Eastern and has applied for disability. I can only imagine the pain her family is experiencing--her sister, her brother, her nieces and nephews.

I read on Facebook earlier today of a young girl whose parents were in a motorcycle accident. I sort of assumed they were riding the motorcycle and thought it was pretty cool her folks were tooling around that way. Her parents have broken bones and are in a lot of pain, but they are alive and, apparently, will recuperate reasonably well. This young woman was grateful to God, and rightly so, that her parents are all right. I could not help but wonder how she would have been feeling and what she would have been thinking if the prognosis for her parents was less positive.

People are confronted with tragedy every day and it is never unaccompanied. That tragedy always comes with some form of emotional or spiritual or psychological pain, perhaps all of those forms of pain.

While Janet seems to have accepted the fact that she is on her "final journey," and while I have suspected that to be the case for some months now, I cannot help but try to deny that, reject it as even a possible truth. Janet? She is too fun-loving, too well-loved! I never got to join her and her family "down the shore"! I want to be able to spend more time with her! I want to see what incredible things she is going to do with her doctorate! A lot of that is about me, which isn't unusual, because it's hard not to think about the gaping hole she'll leave behind even though we don't see each other often. I think that is because those who are being left behind struggle with a vast and torturous array of crashing and conflicting emotions.

I do not yet yield her to that silent spectre. I know that she is a Bible-believing evangelical Christian who believes she is going home; I have to pray that provides her with sufficient comfort, perhaps even hope, through her pain. Even still, selfishly, I'm not ready to let her go.

Yes, four months is a long time but we all know how quickly weeks fly by. Yes, a miracle is possible and I pray for an extraordinary miracle of healing and well-being, but I also know that God may choose to answer that prayer very differently from what I picture in my head and heart.

This sort of news, of course, puts a lot of things in perspective. So much of my life and my concerns seem trivial in the face of hers. I'm not inspired by her battle; I'm humbled by it. I'm not comforted by her stoicism or her rationale and pragmatic approach; I'm amazed by it. I want to examine all I know of her life and all I know of her living to learn from her for as long as I'm privileged to do so.

And let me say this: anyone who has heard Janet laugh, has been incredibly blessed.

Monday, July 6

The Gutenberg Elegies

In 1994, Sven Birkerts published The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Let me just say that Mr. Birkerts was not prescient. While he groused about the computer, he never could have imagined instant messaging, text messaging, Twitter, or Facebook.

It's important to note the Mr. Birkerts was concerned about the fate of "reading," not the fate of text. Early in his book he speaks of American Short Story class he taught to undergraduates during which he wanted to introduce the students to Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and others. He was surprised that his students struggled with these writers and their styles. Birkerts did spend some time with his students discussing their apparent lack of interest or ability and observes that "they were not, with a few exceptions--readers--never had been" (p. 19). He learned they "occupied themselves with music, TV, and videos; that they had difficulty slowing down enough to concentrate on prose of any density" (p. 19), but the students also struggled with the language, the structure of the works, etc. From this and like observations, Birkerts believes that we are fated to be incapable of reading. I oversimply, of course, but that seems to be the general direction of his concerns.

Of course, he does not tell us how he framed the questions or how he moderated the conversation. And he does not seem to contemplate the possibility of using more contemporary American short stories to engage his students before moving on to some of the more classic short stories.

After spending an inordinate amount of time telling the story of his life so the reader has some sense of why he became a critic, he moves to the chapter dramatically titled "The Death of Literature." He does, however, differentiate between what we generally call "fiction" and once we deemed "Literature." He has a point. There was once a time that books were a form of art, that they played an important and significant role in examining society and history, generally doing so with a Purpose. Somewhere in the midst of the rise and evolution of literary criticism, academia appropriated Literature and became to formalize it, deconstruct it, and otherwise examine it through a host of critical lenses. Even books that people once enjoyed reading for the sake of reading became Literature and if the books didn't seem to contribute Something to Society, they were scarcely worth reading.

But authors, bless 'em, kept writing. Yes, there has been a transformation, but it's not as though the technology/TV generation ruined literature. There was romance long before Danielle Steele; there was pulp long before there was Danielle Steele.

Birkerts asserts that "[l]iterature--serious fiction and poetry and the discourse that has always accompanied them and helped make them a way of talking about important and difficult aspects of our universal experience. . ." (p. 191) seems to have slipped to the margins of public and even scholarly interest.

I suspect that Mr. Birkerts is a literary elitist and would argue that reading popular fiction doesn't count even though many of us who have taught literature have used so called "popular fiction" in our classes if for no other reason than it exposes students to a variety of works. I'm not sure how Birkerts would classify Morrison's The Bluest Eye or Potok's The Chosen or Allende's The House of the Spirits or Achebe's Things Fall Apart. But these are all books students read in literature classes along with some of the so-called classics.

Mr. Birkerts goes on to say that technology is

antithetical to inwardness. . . . inward experience, including all aesthetic experience, unfolds in one kind of time; electronic communications, of their very nature, depend upon--indeed create--another. The time of the self is deep time, duration time, time that is essentially characterized by our obliviousness to it. To the degree that we immerse ourselves in a book. . . to that degree we surrender our awareness of the present as a coordinate on a grid (p. 193).
In one sense, Mr. Birkerts was prescient. In the chapter titled "Coda: The Faustian Pact," he states that he foresees the "wholesale wiring of America" (p. 215) and "ever more complex and efficient technological systems being interposed between the individual and the harsh constraints of nature" (p. 215). He believed, in 1994, that our face-to-face time would diminish and we would spend more time interacting with others via our computer screens. Birkerts quotes Mitchell Kapor's "Democracy and the New Information Highway", which was originally published in 1993 in the Boston Review. Kapor wrote about the expanding information highway that would make available movies, catalogs, magazines, newspapers, courses, and more through a few clicks "of a remote control" (p. 217). Kapor also states that "[t]wo-way video conferencing will revolutionize business meetings, visits to the doctor, and heart-to-heart talks" (p. 217). And this was long before Skype!

It is clear to me, however, that Birkerts is most concerned about time. He asserts that duration is "deep time, time experienced without the awareness of time passing" (p. 219). And believes that "[w]e have destroyed that duration. We have created invisible elsewheres that are as immediate as our actual surroundings. We have fractured the flow of time, layered it into competing simultaneities" (p. 219).

Birkerts does speak some truths as he notes that we are expected to be able to multitask, but I think he overstates the demise of civilization when he suggests we have lost or are losing our sense of distance, that we cannot imagine traveling several miles to visit someone when we can do it instanteously over the wires.

It probably comes as no surprise that Mr. Birkerts finds the Kindle a complete anathema. I suppose that having found that the ensuing years have not proven him right about the demise of reading--the popularity of the Harry Potter series must have been a nasty shock--he had to find some other target to bemoan the disintegraton of the literary.

Dr. Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College (IL) quotes Birkerts in a blog post. Apparently Birkerts was afraid that the Kindle will become a "one-stop outlet, a speedy and irrestibly efficient leveler of context" (¶ 4). Apparently Birkerts also gets a little miffed that someone uses a Blackberry to look up a word. Really?

Dr. Jacobs is not the only who thinks Birkerts was and is a little off the mark. You might also find entertaining the exchange between Wen Stephenson and Mr. Birkerts published in 1996. And then there is Edward Champion who begins his blog (2007) with this phrase: "The reputedly intelligent Sven Birkerts. . ."; it doesn't get much better after that. Mr. Champion's blog post is in response to Birkerts' 2007 article published in the Boston Globe. The title of the article? "Lost in the blogosphere: Why literary blogging won't save our literary culture."

Birkerts seems not to like the fluidity of the blogosphere and that one can lost in the labyrinth of links, though he does admit that to being immersed at depth. However, he also says:

The implicit immediacy and ephemerality of "post" and "update," the deeply embedded assumption of referentiality (linkage being part of the point of blogging), not to mention a new of-the-moment ethos among so many of the bloggers (especially the younger ones) favors a less formal, less linear, and essentially unedited mode of argument. While more traditional print-based standards are still in place on sites like Slate and the online offerings of numerous print magazines, many of the blogs venture a more idiosyncratic, off-the-cuff style, a kind of "I've been thinking . . ." approach. At some level it's the difference between amateur and professional. What we gain in independence and freshness we lose in authority and accountability.
I think it's that highlighted phrase that really bugs Mr. Birkerts. It's not the electronic medium; it's the fact that anyone and everyone can be a writer which also means that anyone and everyone can be a reader and that anyone and everyone can be a critic.

What we have seen is that reading has not died. Yes, how kids and adults read and what we read may have changed. I occasionally mourn how difficult it is to get kids to read more classic texts, but there are so many great books out there, the real difficulty is choosing which painfully small microcosm of books to choose for a 15-week semester. Perhaps the books I select for my students are not what Mr. Birkerts might call Literature, but there are some texts that the so-called experts have called Literature that just don't seem that good to me.

One more observation, though I could make several more. Birkerts worried about the collapse of the duration, but also of our view of the world--that perhaps we would be more constrained because of electronic communications. I cannot help but think of the work of Julie Lindsay and Vicki Davis and the Flat Classroom Project. Or the work of Sharon Peters and Teachers Without Borders. Or so many others I've met only through electronic medium and yet with whom I know I have an affinity, perhaps even a relationship.

If anything, teachers are using Web 2.0 technologies not only to expand their students' educational horizons, but to expand their ways of thinking about learning, about reading, and about writing.

One of the absolute best kickers, though, is the NCTE National Gallery of Writing project. This is an incredibly ambitious project through which the NCTE hopes to get every single person in the world to contribute at least one piece of writing. With all of that writing, someone's got to be reading!

Read on!