Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Cultural Details in THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD

American Literature On-line Discussion

What are you noticing so far about "black culture" in Their Eyes Were Watching God?

The characters live in a different time period from us and a different region of the country, are experiencing different social pressures (post-slavery, post-Civil War, mid-segregation, pre-Civil Rights, between World Wars, post-Roaring Twenties, mid-Depression), and have different cultural influences from most of us readers in this class (the color of their skin and how they are thus treated, the rules for interacting with someone of a different sex or different age, the foods they eat, the way they talk, the expressions they use, the experiences they've gone through and understand in one another, the things they find entertaining or amusing, they way they deal with hardships or celebrate good times, etc.).

Choose something you've noticed from the novel that helps to give readers an impression of the black culture shared by these characters. Share your example (a quotation from the narration or from one of the characters) and spend some time explaining what it reveals to you about culture in the world of the novel. If what you noted ties in with something someone else has said before you, point out how. If it contradicts someone else, point out how; tell how you came to a different conclusion.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Stir Crazy

Last night Susan and I joined three other couples at the home of one of those couple for a game called Stir Crazy. Beforehand the host couple brought their kids to our house, where my cousin Rachelle (well, first cousin once removed) babysat them and the Moberg children. Thus the hosts were sans children as were all their guests for the game.

Stir Crazy is a cooking game (this one's theme: Chinese food) in which participants are divided into two teams who compete against one another. We had a little trepidation ahead of time, not only because we didn't know how the game would work or if it could be done in one home kitchen but also because we feared how the teams would be assigned. If it had been "boys against the girls," EVERYBODY would have lost out--the men for having no clue what to make, and the women for having to eat our food! Mercifully, the random draw resulted in two women and two men on each team.

We were allowed first to eye the dining table full of ingredients and then convene a private meeting (in the hosts' daughter's bedroom) to plan our menu options, which would depend on the ingredients we might end up with. Then we all returned to the dining room and spun the game's spinner to find out which team would get which ingredient. Rule: you MUST use every ingredient that your team ends up getting. Sometimes the spinner told us to select our own ingredient; sometimes it told the other team to swap one of theirs for one of ours. In the end, we ended up with shrimp and chicken for meats, eggs, a lot of vegetables, some rice, canned chicken broth, and pineapple.

Once the ingredients were divvied up, we reconvened a private meeting to finalize the menu. We were required to make an appetizer, a side dish, and an entree. We considered what we had and decided to make egg drop soup, shrimp fried rice, and sweet and sour chicken. There was a side table with staples available to both teams (to share): Oriental seasonings and sauces, brown sugar, honey, etc. We took that into consideration, too, when planning the menu.

Then we all gathered in the kitchen and started the timer: 90 minutes were allowed to prepare the entire meal and present it. A cassette of Chinese music (that came with the game) played in the background while we worked. On our team the men ended up being the worker bees while the women ran the cooking/seasoning/preparing operation. I chopped the raw vegetables and wrote the menu card; Curt chopped mushrooms and shrimp and helped the women after I retired to the living room to write. Both teams shared the stove, microwave, deep fat frier, and utensils. Our team (Team Salt) used the dining room table as our headquarters while our opponents (Team Pepper) used the kitchen island as theirs.

Things went surprisingly smoothly, and once everything was plated and set on the dining room table, we discovered that we had a feast of delicious-looking food. Team Pepper made cream cheese and banana-stuffed wontons that they deep-fried and served with a fruit salsa; pork fried rice; and beef lo mein. We all took a little of everything and pigged out. It was great, and we were all very impressed with ourselves: how well it worked to prepare all these foods while sharing the kitchen, beating the clock, and working with the limitations of the ingredients provided us.

We voted by secret ballot afterward and found that Team Pepper's wonton appetizer won that category while our team's sweet and sour chicken won for best entree. (The side dish may have been a tie; I don't remember.) We were all winners, as far as we were concerned. It was an unusual game that turned out to be a blast. The hosts, Jesse and Nicole, did a LOT of preparing to be ready for us, and they served delicious beverages all night and chocolate-dipped strawberries and fortune cookies for dessert. They even had prizes for the teams that won in each category. It was a great experience. The game comes in other versions, too; we hope someday to try the Mexican and Italian food versions.


Here is Team Pepper's menu card from last night:

"Kiss of the Geisha" -- Sweeter than your lover's lips, these pillowy banana cream cheese wontons perfectly embrace the fresh fruit salsa flavored with a hint of cilantro and jalapeno.

"Feast of the Emperor" -- You will feel like royalty when you taste this robust beef lo mein. Get down on your knees before chef Jesse . . . that's hot! [in-joke]

"Pig in a Paddy" -- The perfect dish to serve in "The Year of the Pig." This traditional dish is said to provide fortitude, stamina, and sexual power to those who consume it, as is the character of those born in the year of the boar.


Here is Team Salt's menu card (complete with haiku for each item):

"Tsu San's Egg Drop Soup" -- A savory chicken broth is accented by a hint of red onions and completed with mushrooms, frozen peas, and farm-fresh eggs.

Sun through the white clouds;
Green tree tops float in the sky;
Gentle stream snakes by.

"East Grand Chopsticks Shrimp Fried Rice" -- Fluffy fried rice supports a medley of crispy vegetables, sea-harvested shrimp, and Oriental seasonings.

Festival of color--
Treasures lie 'neath the surface--
Dive in; celebrate!

"General Hanson [my teammate Curt's last name] Sweet and Sour Chicken" -- The classic interplay of sweet and sour is celebrated by crisp vegetables, tender fruits, and fried chicken in this famous dish.

Nation's favorite food--
Tradition turns to legend . . .
Immortal Gen'ral!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Modernist Issues in Our modern [small "m"] Society

American Literature On-line Discussion

Modernist writing raises a lot of issues that were concerns for Americans of the time period. But that was 60 to 100 years ago; surely they are no longer concerns in America today, right? Let's just see about that . . .

In America today, are all people treated equally and given equal opportunities to achieve their American Dream? Judging by what we've read of Modernist literature, that wasn't true in the early 1900s for women, non-whites, people with physical or mental disabilities, people who were different from the norm, people who were poor or lower-class, veterans of war, etc.

Choose a group of people whose inequality or lack of access to the America Dream is a feature of any of the Modernist short stories that we read or of Of Mice and Men.
  1. First, tell what Modernist literature has to say about their situation in the early 1900s. Refer to specific characters in specific stories or in the novel.
  2. Then, tell what you perceive their situation to be in the United States in 2006. If possible, relate it to Minnesota or even East Grand Forks. Provide examples to illustrate your point.
  3. Finally, speculate on why things have improved or why they have not improved for this group of people over the last century. What has changed in American society to make things better, the same, or worse for them?

As always, refer to others' comments when making your own. This week's topic has the potential to stir up disagreement; feel free to disagree. But be polite, back up what you say with explanations and evidence, and check back before the week is through to see what others have said in response to you!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Valentines Day

On Valentines Day, we took the girls to see the movie Nanny McPhee starring Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, and Angela Lansbury. It was great! It's based on a series of books called Nurse Matilda, which I haven't read nor had I heard of but which I just may have to check out. The best part of the movie was our daughters' reactions. Every once in a while, I would glance to the side to see Abigail's face lit up or Suzanna's eyes wide in anticipation of something about to come (Hillary was too many seats away to see well). I enjoyed the movie all the more because of their reactions, I think. It's also fun to hear them make inferences about why a character has done a certain thing or predictions about what events are probably upcoming. Two words: kee-yoot. Afterward we ate supper at Pizza Hut, which was another treat. There were some Valentines awaiting us at home, too. The girls had made and decorated Valentines for Susan and me and hidden them under our bed the day before, leaving a note that we couldn't look under the bed until Valentines Day. Two more words: suh-weet.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Themes in OF MICE AND MEN

American Literature On-line Discussion

At this point in your reading, you are likely already noticing themes and motifs developing in the novel. Critics and "lay readers" alike have identified a lot of them! I'll list several options below.

You choose one and explain how you see it reflected in the characters and plot at whatever point you are in the reading. Provide evidence from the novel to support your contention that whatever you choose really is a theme and not just something that you're pulling out of thin air! What does the novel seem to say about your chosen theme? What is it message regarding the idea you've chosen as a theme?

NOTE: As always, refer to what others have written before you, either in agreement or disagreement with them. It's not enough merely to repeat someone else, however. If you cannot add anything new to what they have said about a particular theme, then choose a different one about which you can contribute new thoughts.

  • dreams; the American Dream (and/or its impossibility)
  • loneliness
  • friendship; companionship
  • innocence
  • discrimination
  • the predatory nature of human existence
  • fraternity and the idealized male friendship
  • the corrupting power of women
  • strength and weakness
  • man vs. society (more of a conflict, really, but you may treat it as a theme)
  • man vs. himself (ditto above)
  • loyalty and sacrifice
  • power and violence; powerlessness
  • nature
  • idealism vs. reality
  • the importance of relationships
  • responsibility to others
  • right vs. wrong; ethics; morals
  • the evil of oppression and abuse
  • the ephemeral nature of life

Saturday, February 11, 2006

"Mr. Moberg?! This Blows My Mind!"

How bizarre to see past students six or seven or eight years later and have a drink with them at a bar! It's a bit surreal, but no more so for me than for them. Last night I hung out with packs of them at a local establishment, sharing beverages and memories. Many of them were my students when they were freshmen and then never again, so their memories are of my being strict, keeping them from misbehaving, keeping them working all period, etc. To them, it was jaw-dropping to talk as equals over a beer. Had they had me again when they were juniors or seniors (when they were themselves more mature and better behaved), they would have seen a more relaxed demeanor from me and not been, now several years later, so shocked to see me having a drink, sharing a joke, laughing and smiling, etc.

I can totally see things from their perspective, though. There are plenty of teachers from my high school days that I still can not picture in a casual social situation. In my mind, they belong behind their desks or walking around their classrooms and nowhere else--certainly not at a night club! But teachers are human, too. And so are students. That's a nice realization that comes from reuniting with them in a setting that isn't the classroom and catching up on what has transpired in the intervening years.

A Tropical Island in February

Many, many moons ago in college (undergrad), my friend Theresa wrote a parody of Little House on the Prairie in which the kids put on a pageant at school and Pa cries proudly at the drop of a hat all throughout the play. I felt like Pa this week when Susan and I attended Valley Middle School's production of Once on This Island, Jr., their annual musical, at the Empire Arts Center in Grand Forks, ND. Our three daughters were recruited by the director Allison Brooks to participate, although they are neither middle school students nor Grand Forks students. Suzanna played young TiMoune at the beginning, a young girl hearing the story at the beginning and retelling it at the end, and a little girl who meets Daniel's son while playing in TiMoune's tree at the end. Abigail and Hillary played young girls hearing the retelling of the story from Suzanna at the end.

When Suzanna, as a frightened child at the beginning, put her face in her hands and sobbed, I started to tear up. When she sang her lines, I teared up. When she spoke her lines at the end with impeccable diction and clarity, I teared up. When Abigail and Hillary joined the other listeners gathered at Suzanna's feet at the end to hear her retell the story, I teared up. I was even proud of all the middle schoolers in the cast, and I don't know any of them! It was a fun production of a great show, and I'm so glad the girls were able to participate.

One of the best parts was seeing all the creative cast gifts made by crafty kids and their parents and left out for cast members to take. So many of them had a tropical island theme. Two of my favorites? The boy who played Agwe [AH-gway], the god of water, covered water bottles with "Agwefina" [Aquafina] labels. Another student hot-glued popsicle sticks to cans of Fanta orange pop so that, reading the can, one would see "Fanta" stick [fantastic].

What a blast!

Monday, February 06, 2006

Biographical Literary Criticism

American Literature On-line Discussion

Biographical literary criticism is one of several approaches to analyzing a work of literature. Such critics look into the life of the author for clues that will provide insight into the story or novel or poem that he/she has written. For example, knowing that Edgar Allan Poe lost so many beloved women in his life to tuberculosis makes one consider Lenore in "The Raven" or the red death in "The Masque of the Red Death" differently--and, perhaps, with a better or deeper understanding.

Biographical literary criticism can be taken too far, however. It would be irresponsible for us to assume that Poe himself had ever buried anybody else alive just from our having read "The Fall of the House of Usher." In general, one cannot start with the literature and move backward to the author's life to find significant connections. Instead, one starts with the author's life and then looks to the story or novel or poem for evidence of the influence of the author's life on the work itself.

Choose any one of the Modernist works that we have read so far:

  • "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner
  • "The End of Something" by Ernest Hemingway
  • "Soldier's Home" by Ernest Hemingway
  • "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber
  • "Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin
  • "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" by Katherine Anne Porter
  • "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" by Richard Wright
  • "A Wagner Matinee" by Willa Cather
  • "His Father's Earth" by Thomas Wolfe
  • "A Worn Path" by Eudora Welty
  • "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" by Flannery O'Connor
  • "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Now give biographical literary criticism a try! Do an Internet search (Google is a good place to start) for biographical information on the author. (Choose a site that looks credible.) Then, share something you've learned that seems to shed light on a detail from the story or novel that he/she has written. Did the author experience something similar to what his/her character goes through? Did the author believe something that is clear in the way he/she writes the story or novel? Were there real people in the author's life who show up in altered form in his/her story or novel?

Be sure to tell us enough about the story or novel's plot, too, to understand the connections you find--especially if it's a story that we did not read together as a class.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Christmas in February!

This past weekend we celebrated Christmas with the Gustafson side of our family. Yes, February 3, 2006 was our Christmas dinner and gift opening for 2005! It was the first weekend that everyone in Susan's family could get together, so we scheduled it and hosted it. We even left up our Christmas decorations (minimal though they were) so things would still look Christmas-y around here.

Susan's dad Roger from Dickinson, ND; Susan's brother Jerrett, his wife Cheryl, and their son Arron from Mandan, ND; and Susan's sister Cassie and her fiance Nick from Fargo, ND all drove to East Grand Forks on Friday in time for us to have supper together. Arron and the girls sat at the card table in the kitchen while the adults all squeezed together at the kitchen table. If you haven't been in our kitchen or our postage stamp-sized house, you won't realize what a trick it is to seat 11 at one time in the same room for a meal. Yeah, we don't generally host guests for meals unless the weather is nice enough (read: "summer") for us to use our spacious enclosed sun room. Good thing we like our family and don't mind crowding together.

Susan made manicotti, Greek chicken salad, garlic toast, and steamed asparagus for supper and served vanilla bean cheesecake with white chocolate mousse and raspberries for dessert--yum, yum, yum!! Afterward, we crammed into the living room and opened gifts. The girls received more than they needed, and everyone got very nice things from one another. Afterward, Jerrett and Cheryl retired to Suzanna's bed, Arron slept in Abigail's bed, Roger used Hillary's bed, and the girls camped out in sleeping bags on the living room floor upstairs. Cassie and Nick wisely exited for a hotel room in downtown Grand Forks, ND.

The next day, after a huge mid-morning breakfast of French toast, sausage, scrambled eggs, fruit salad, orange juice, and coffee (again, compliments of Susan), Nick and I took the girls swimming at Cassie and Nick's hotel while Roger, Jerrett, and Arron shopped at Cabela's and Cassie took Susan and Cheryl shopping for bridesmaid dresses for her upcoming wedding (in May). Everyone but Roger left for their homes by early afternoon. The girls had a birthday party to attend, so Susan and I took Roger out to Paulo's, a Mexican restaurant in downtown East Grand Forks, for a mid-afternoon dinner.

Roger stayed overnight Saturday, as well, and left early this morning to return to Dickinson. We don't see any of our relatives often enough, so we appreciate the time we do get with them, however rare or brief.