Monday, November 28, 2005


American Literature On-line Discussion

A new "ism": Gothic Romanticism. Read all about it here. Part of the Gothic tradition apparent in today's society is the popularity of horror as a literary and film genre. That's the focus of this week's discussion question (that is, if you're not already too terrified to continue!).

We'll start this week by reading horror writers Stephen King's and H.P. Lovecraft's ideas about why people enjoy horror literature. Horror stories are very popular today, in both writing and film. Undoubtedly you yourself have either read horror stories or seen horror movies, or both--and probably done so willingly--and probably even liked it! But why?

Read these authors' suggested reasons for why people enjoy horror literature. Choose one and tell whether you agree with his/her ideas about the appeal of horror. Support your position with specific examples from horror literature that you yourself have read, or from horror films you yourself have seen.

Some cautions:
  1. DO mention at least one of the authors (from the linked site above) and his/her ideas.
  2. DO mention King or Lovecraft, too, if their ideas help you to say what you want to say.
  3. DO agree or disagree with, or elaborate on, the comments of those who have posted before you.
  4. Do NOT merely repeat what others before you have said, however. Especially if you choose to write about the same story or novel or movie that a classmate has already written about, take pains to offer new examples from it and new insights into it.
  5. Do NOT stray too far from the topic. For example, if you were to comment that you never read horror stories but that you do enjoy romance (lowercase "r") novels, and then you went on to describe one such romance novel, that would be off the topic. And if you were to write about how pretty cows are, that would be really off the topic!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Terrifying Bedtime Story!

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've likely seen ads or trailers for Disney's upcoming movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It looks like it's going to be great, and the East Grand Forks Mobergs are planning to see it for several reasons:
  • Susan remembers reading, as a youngster, the C.S. Lewis book upon which the movie is based (in fact, she has read the entire Chronicles of Narnia series of seven books);
  • In 1996 Susan and I were in a musical called Narnia, also based on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe--I played Aslan the lion, and she played the White Witch; and
  • we have recently been reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with our daughters in anticipation of the movie, to which we hope to take them.

Each night we cuddle up together on the couch or on someone's bed and read another chapter of the novel. The girls know about the musical that Mommy and Daddy were in, and they have heard some of the songs from it, and they have seen ads for the upcoming movie, so they are especially interested in the book. And they're terrific listeners and imaginers--the book has very few illustrations, but they listen carefully and easily picture in their heads the characters, settings, and action. They ask the best questions after we finish each chapter, and they make excellent predictions of what will happen the next night when we read again.

(This imagining and predicting is something too many of my students--juniors and seniors in high school--are not able or willing to do when they themselves read, either having lost the ability over the years or having never developed it as early readers. As a consequence, they often label whatever they're reading "boring," unwilling to expend the mental energy that a reader must in order to interact with the book and make it interesting. Some people speculate that this is a consequence of their having grown up inundated with media that do all the interpreting for them: video games, TV shows, movies, music videos, etc., that show them without ever requiring them to picture things for themselves and that they take in passively without ever having to do much mental work to interact with them. I myself am a big fan of well done movies and TV shows and don't blame them alone for so many students' poor reading. Instead, I think it's a result of never being encouraged or required to read--of being allowed to take in only visual media and rarely or never just a good book. In any case, it's a sad situation.)

Last night, the girls and I were on a roll and read four chapters before finally calling it a night and tumbling into bed! We stopped in part because Suzanna was crying. She is so good at developing empathy for the characters in a book or movie that she gets outwardly emotional when they're in a sad or scary situation. Last night she got scared during the chapter when the four Pevensie children are at Mr. and Mrs. Beaver's house eating and talking about the White Witch's evilness and Aslan's upcoming return to Narnia. At one point, the Pevensies notice that their brother Edmund (under the witch's spell) has slipped away, presumably to report the others' whereabouts to the White Witch. I was lying on my stomach, and Suzanna was on my back, and she clutched my shirt, buried her face into my back, and started to cry. We had a group hug and talked about why she was crying: she was concerned that the White Witch was going to find and hurt the children, and she didn't want to keep reading for fear that she would have to witness that horrible act! We had a great conversation about fiction and reality and good vs. evil and God and "getting into" reading, etc. What a sweetheart! And her sisters were so sweet about comforting her, too (and perhaps a little patronizing, but not intentionally).

A few years ago, we watched the movie version of The Wild Thornberrys, a terrific kids' show on Nickelodeon. At one point the daughter Eliza is sent to boarding school and must say goodbye to her parents. She is waving to them as they part, and the background music is sad--and there sat Suzanna between her mom and me, shuddering and sobbing.

I hope she always maintains the capacity to develop a sense of empathy for the characters in the books and movies and TV shows that she enjoys. That's the way that she will be able to experience the catharsis of a good cry during an emotional book or movie, and that's a good indication that she will be an empathetic and sympathetic member of the human community to which she belongs. And we need more of those kinds of people in this world.

Everyone, keep reading!!

Thursday, November 24, 2005


Our day began with a delicious breakfast, courtesy of my wife Susan: cheesy-and-hammy scrambled eggs, hashbrowns, gigantic juicy grapes, orange juice, and blueberry/cream cheese butter braid (a breadloaf-length filled pastry, baked and then sliced). I read the newspaper over breakfast--that is, after pulling out the pounds of advertising flyers meant to entice people into venturing forth tomorrow for Christmas shopping!

(And on that topic: there are homes in our neighborhood that have had outdoor Christmas lights and indoor Christmas trees lit up for a couple weeks now. What up?! Let Thanksgiving pass before you move on to Christmas, people!)

Then we drove to Fargo, ND to my sister-in-law Cassie's apartment. There we met her fiance Nick's brother Louie for the first time. A while later Susan and Cassie's brother Jerrett from Mandan, ND and dad Roger from Dickinson, ND arrived. Then we all departed for Nick and Louie's parents' lake cabin outside of Detroit Lakes, MN. Their parents Tim and Kathy had invited us there for Thanksgiving in order to meet us and start getting to know Cassie's family now that she and Nick are engaged to be married next May.

The drive to the cabin was very scenic. Once we got off the interstate, we drove on winding roads through rolling hills covered with trees and separated by lakes both big and small. Although it's the end of November, we have no snow yet, so we saw the variegated colors of autumn grasses and of evergreen trees mixed among the leafless ones. The sun was bright, and the sky was clear, so all in all, it was a great day for a drive through unfamiliar territory. (The girls made a game of counting lakes [Cassie reminded them that MN is the "Land of 10,000 Lakes"], but they couldn't come to an agreement on the count at any point during the game.)

Tim and Kathy have a nice little home on the waterfront. The woodstove and candles were burning when we arrived, making the house smell like a country craft store. Before we ate, Kathy led us in a sweet, sincere prayer of thanks for family and of anticipation for the upcoming wedding. Then Nick gave a toast, and we enjoyed some wine before the meal. Cassie had made a vegetable salad, and Kathy served turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, dressing, baked cinnamon apples, biscuits, and lefse. For dessert Susan had baked three pies: apple, pumpkin, and chocolate (like French silk pie), each served with homemade whipped cream.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in front of the woodstove, some playing Scrabble, others playing the card game Hearts, and others watching football. The girls played Connect Four and drew pictures and played with some toys that Kathy had gathered ahead of time for them. At one point in the darkness of evening, we saw fireworks exploding in the sky over the lake, so we stepped onto the deck outside in the brisk air and watched a lake neighbor celebrating Thanksgiving the Independence Day way.

Susan and Cassie discussed wedding plans (for Cassie and Nick) as we drove back to Fargo, and Susan and I listened to MN Public Radio ("Fresh Air" with Terry Gross) while the girls slept as we drove from Fargo back to East Grand Forks. We had some warmed-up turkey, potatoes, and gravy before tucking the girls into bed. Susan is planning to do some Christmas shopping tomorrow. I've got some dissertation writing to do myself!

It was a nice holiday. We traveled someplace unfamiliar, we met new people, we spent the day with family, we ate well, and we are spending the night in our own beds. Perfect!

I hope you had a great Thanksgiving, too.

Monday, November 21, 2005

How Far Are YOU Willing to Go?!

American Literature On-line Discussion

In his essay "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau writes, "That government is best which governs least." He believes that a person's obligation to his/her own conscience takes precedence over any obligation to his/her government. If, in following one's conscience, one finds it necessary to break the laws of one's government, then one ought to do so. However, one must also be prepared to pay the penalty, such as imprisonment.

Recall that Thoreau backed his beliefs with action when he himself went to jail in the 1840s for refusing to pay a tax to support the Mexican War, which he believed to be unjust. By now, you have also read about Mahatma Gandhi's acts of civil disobedience in India in the early 1900s and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s acts of civil disobedience in the American South in the 1950s and '60s.

Consider state, national, and world events of today. What are people or corporations or governments doing that seems wrong, according to your conscience--your morals, your values, your sense of "right" or "just" behavior and treatment of others? What acts of civil disobedience could you participate in to demonstrate your obligation to your own conscience? How would those acts clash with your obligations to the laws of your government? How committed to your conscience are you? In other words, would you be willing to pay the penalty for your civil disobedience? Would your civil disobedience have an impact on the wrong behavior of the people, corporations, or governments against whom you'd be demonstrating?

NOTE: I am not advocating that you go forth and do something to get yourself arrested! I am merely asking you to test hypothetically Thoreau's commitment to civil disobedience in your own life and times. I am hoping to find out (1) whether you think this Transcendental idea/technique would be effective in our world today, and (2) whether you yourself feel strongly enough about your conscience to consider civil disobedience as an option for dealing with current problems around you.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Recent Events and Photos

Some very fun things have happened in my life recently--and, thanks to Mishka, a couple of them are recorded photographically for your enjoyment.

Last week we had our friends Job and Mishka over for supper: manicotti, Greek chicken salad, broccoli, wine, garlic bread, and for dessert, a trifle made of layers of brownie, caramel, fudge, and whipped cream. We all had a great time. The girls were very amusing all through supper, and afterward they persuaded our guests to dance around with them in the family room and to read aloud their bedtime stories.

It was Mishka's birthday the next day, but his birthday party was the day after that. Susan and I joined a large group at Red Ray Lanes in Grand Forks, ND to celebrate Mishka's natal anniversary, enjoy very amateur bowling, and eat lots of pizza, chips and dip, and chicken from the Italian Moon. A while back my dad gave me the bowling shirts that he and Mom used to wear when they were in a bowling league eons ago. Occasionally on a weekend, I'll slip one on to wear around the house. Well, because I've got two identical shirts, I decided that bowling for Mishka's birthday was the perfect event to showcase the fashion.

Another fun event (sorry, no photos of this one) was parent/teacher conferences. Yes, "fun"! They were held this past Monday and tonight from 4:30-7:30 P.M. I was very busy both nights, and I really enjoyed it. I like telling parents what we've been doing, comparing my version with their children's version (if their kids have even told them anything about our class), and hearing their questions or compliments about the class. I especially like being able to deliver good news about a kid's writing talent or attitude toward me or behavior in the classroom, etc. Afterward I joined teachers from our building and others in the district at Tortilla Flats for socializing.

(I have tomorrow off from teaching, but I'll be at school, grading and lesson planning.)

Monday, November 14, 2005

Trust Thyself

American Literature On-line Discussion

In "Self-Reliance," Emerson writes, "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." In Walden, Thoreau writes, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." Being a nonconformist was an important theme in our reading last week and in the reading we will do this week and next.

Let's test the limits today of the Transcendental push for individuality and nonconformity.

Where/how do you see nonconformity around you in today's society, either in East Grand Forks or in the nation? To what extent is it Transcendental? That is, is it somebody being true to him-/herself, or is it somebody trying to be different from everybody else for some other reason? Would Emerson or Thoreau admire the nonconformity of whoever you're writing about? Do you admire it? Are there times when, or situations in which, nonconformity is not desirable? Finally, when/how are you a nonconformist? Does it qualify as a Transcendental kind of individuality?

(Do not use people's names if what you say about their nonconformity is potentially hurtful or embarrassing.)

(And remember to respond--agree or disagree with--to one another.)

Monday, November 07, 2005

You, Natural-ly!

American Literature On-line Discussion

We're about to move forward along the path of "-isms" that guides us through American Literature. Recall that we have already paused at the rest areas of Puritanism and Rationalism, and we've just recently been wandering around the meadows of Romanticism.

To continue that metaphor, imagine Romanticism as having a big back yard, part of it sunny and bright and golden, the other part of it shady and cool and a bit unwelcoming. That latter region is Gothic Romanticism, and it's a few weeks away on our journey. The former area is Transcendentalism, and it's our next stop. Both are extensions of Romanticism, so you'll likely see many similarities to the Romantic characteristics with which you're already familiar.

Click here and, at that site, scroll down about a quarter of the way to the section labeled "Student Notes on the Transcendententalist Perspective of Nature." Skim the student responses there. Then, respond to this week's question:

How Transcendental are you when it comes to nature? Choose some aspect of nature and tell what it means to you--what special meaning it holds for you, what connection you feel to nature in general because of it, what sense of spirituality or heightened awareness or philosophical outlook on life it causes you to experience, etc.

Does that sound a little "out there"?! Your chosen "aspect of nature" may be a location in nature at a specific time of day or year or in a specific region, or it may be a natural object, or it may be a phenomenon such as weather, etc. Describe the natural place or thing and why it's special to you--how it makes you feel, what it makes you think about, what connection to the world or universe itself you feel when experiencing this particular place or thing, etc.

And, to help you further, I'll go first!

What Was I Thinking?!?!

I cannot explain myself. Friday was the last day of the first quarter of this school year, and for some unknown reason, I scheduled the courses that I teach so that I left the building Friday carrying the following things:
  • 52 American Literature essay exams to read, comment on, and grade
  • 46 junior English essay exams to read, comment on, and grade
  • 21 advanced writing compositions to read, comment on, and grade
  • 46 junior English compositions to read, comment on, and grade

And all this on the weekend that I knew my family and I would be spiriting out of town for Susan's cousin's Todd's wedding in Dickinson, ND. Absolutely nuts!

I thought I might get some grading done in the van Friday afternoon if Susan were to drive, but it was so overcast from rainy weather that it was too dark to read in the vehicle--so I just did the driving myself. We stayed in my father-in-law's apartment, and both Friday and Saturday nights, after everyone else had gone to bed, I stayed up at his kitchen table and read, read, read.

I was up until about 3:00 A.M. Saturday and until about 5:00 A.M. Sunday (after having spent all of Saturday visiting with family, then attending the wedding, reception, and dance). We left Dickinson around 9:00 A.M. Sunday, and I continued reading while Susan drove. When we got back to East Grand Forks, I went directly to school where I finished reading/commenting/grading about 7:00 P.M. Egads!

Do students appreciate the amount of time I spend responding to their work and preparing for our classes? I have no idea. I know many of them realize that I'm usually at the school, whether it be early in the morning or late at night, but I don't know if they know why I'm always there or what I'm doing there all the time.

Shhh! Don't tell them, and the mystique shall remain.