Archive for March, 2008

It’s why we work so hard, right?

March 30, 2008

MB and I have been trying to work out a trip west for June during that window when I’m not teaching and she isn’t yet into the thick of fall book orders and it just hasn’t been happening.  It got very frustrating and we were coming up with all kinds of other plans, but really California’s been our goal this year.  So I finally said, screw it, let’s just go before my school year’s done.  It’s the nice thing about Cornell’s schedule (and those loyal readers out there already know those things that I think aren’t so nice) that I can shift and manipulate my work load so that I can take a little time.  It’s not ideal and I’ll probably spend a lot more time on computer than I really want to on vacation, but it’s going to be a good trip.

The plan is to fly into San Francisco, spend a day or two there, then make a big loop up the coast and down through sonoma wine country.  Not sure how far up we’ll make it given time constraints–Eureka is dubious–but we’ll make it up past Fort Bragg and do some hiking and exploring in some of the redwoods there.  If we can make it up to Humboldt State Park to see the big reserves of redwoods, that will be great, but if not we’ll still be happy.  So the goal is coast, redwoods, beer, wine.  Breweries that are definitely on the slate include North Coast, Anderson Valley, Bear Republic, Russian River, Marin, and Thirsty Bear.  Feel free to suggest any others that we definitely shouldn’t miss.  Wineries we’re going to be more spontaneous about.

Like I say, it’s not the best timing and I’ll probably spend too much time fretting about the things I should be doing, but we both need to get away and see something new about now.  Watch this same bat channel for brewpub reviews!

So this is spring

March 28, 2008

Yesterday was the first day of my spring break, and the whole day was a gray, drizzly, snowy washout. Today everything is coated with an inch of snow. 19 degrees right now and the sun is a dazzling mid-winter flash. I love winter, but I was certainly ready for it to be done. This is not exactly how I envisioned starting spring break, but I must say it’s a breathtaking morning. If I were one to wake a little more quickly (I’m up early, but that doesn’t mean I’m really awake until mid-morning) I’d have gotten the camera and snapped a few shots. Frankly, I’m more concerned with the next cup of coffee and staring out at the dazzling sight–and breathe a sigh of relief that I can already see it dripping away and remember that just a few days ago, I was taking stock of the bulbs that were starting to sprout around the yard, the sedum that were just starting to break out, and the first shoots of lilies and daisies starting to appear. By noon I’m guessing the snow will be gone, unlike a mere month ago where every inch kept piling up on themselves showing no signs of disappearing. Just a gentle reminder, I guess, but I’m not so sure of what…

Beer Appreciation 101

March 14, 2008

I have a good friend who is a fantastic chef at a small cafe in Mount Vernon. This is a New York Times-reviewed restaurant that people come from hours around to eat at, and Matt is on the short list for a James Beard Award this year. Now, the restaurant is not necessarily veggie friendly (as he says, “well I thought about making more vegetarian food, but then I thought, ‘fuck it’.”–I respect honesty after all) so I don’t necessarily eat there as often as many locals do (though all visiting writers I bring to campus go to the cafe), but I really respect his sensibility. He works with organic and free range meats, supports the local, organic farming industry as much as possible and is the kind of conscientious entrepreneur that I really appreciate. Besides that, he’s just a great guy.

He has never been able to sell alcohol at the restaurant which is unfortunate for both his customers and himself, but relatively recently he managed to buy a wine bar just two doors down. It’s a nice, comfortable place to get a good bottle of wine and take it to the restaurant. Wine is big in these parts: many foodies who love a good bottle of wine in the area. And don’t get me wrong, I love a good bottle of wine myself. But where, I ask, are all the beer fanatics? I know they’re around, (I mean this is the land of John’s Groceries after all) and I know they would probably love to have a good beer at the wine bar/restaurant as well. So, I took it upon myself to try to open up the door to good beer drinking to my friend Matt. I figured a foodie such as himself would really appreciate a good Belgian beer.

We had Matt and his partner and our good friends Tony and Sarah over to sample some Belgians. This is a much more daunting task than I imagined (at least if the goal is ultimately to have someone leave really wanting to sell some good beer at his bar). You want to pick good beer that will intrigue someone, but you don’t necessarily overwhelm them. I’m not going to spring a real sour Flemish red on someone necessarily unless they’ve already developed an interest/taste, yes? So many to choose from but the tastes are so different it’s difficult to know what someone will respond to. So, I picked a variety in what I think of as the classic strains: golden, double, triple, quadrupel, and a couple biere de garde /farmhouse style beers.

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Definitely a fun evening and, if nothing else, I think I got people interested in the idea of a beer session. People in general liked the Piraat. We had a couple St. Bernardus with dinner and I think we lost touch with actually tasting by that point, so while generally enjoyed I’m not sure we fully appreciated them. Matt did not really go for any of the darker beers, but he was certainly interested in the lighter styles, the farmhouse and the golden. My friend Tony and I agreed on the St. Feuillien–a really nice mustiness to the rich yeast flavor. Great stuff. I’m not sure I have Matt convinced to become a Belgian haven, but I’ll keep working on it. In the meantime, visit the cafe, enjoy the meal, and mention how good his exotic food would be with a really fine beer.

Fare Thee Well, Buddy

March 7, 2008

Well, I’m a little behind the times on this, but I’ve just learned that drummer and singer Buddy Miles died last week. Buddy had been sick for a long time, suffering from congestive heart failure. Last week he turned off his defribrillator and died on Feb. 26.

Miles’s history was long and storied. Most well known for his stint in Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies (along with complementing Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell on “Electric Ladyland”), Miles had played with Ruby and the Romantics, The Ink Spots, the Delfonics, Wilson Pickett, The Electric Flag (created with Mike Bloomfield and debuting at Monterey Pop) John McClaughlin, Carlos Santana, Bootsy Collins and more that I know I’m forgetting. His solo work is just as important as these collaborations; Miles’s album “Them Changes” is a rockin’ soul classic. It’s just an unbelievable body of work that Miles leaves behind him. As tribute, I suggest his Them Changes album or the extended jam “Free Form Funkafide Filth” on the Santana/Miles Live album. Or, of course, Band of Gypies. Play it now. Play it loud.

Buddy Miles: Sept 5, 1947-Feb. 26, 2008

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On Academic “Rigor” and Creative Writing

March 3, 2008

So, here’s my problem: I’m working on a syllabus for my upcoming introduction to creative writing course and I’m trying to respond to comments made in my recent pre-tenure review about academic rigor.  I’m apparently not seen as “tough” enough.  Now, I have nothing against academic rigor. My problem, though, is that I’m convinced that this term has started to become synonymous with learning, and that seems dangerous to me.  Rigor is perhaps one way to achieve a learning environment, but I’m in no way ready to concede that it’s the only one.  I’m plenty tough in many courses (in fact, I’m ashamed to admit the times I believe I’ve made students cry due to workload), but creative writing doesn’t work that way.  I ask students to put themselves in a vulnerable position as writers, to open doors that are not easy to open and can be quite scary once they’re open.  Fact is, if they’re worried about the grade they’ll get for that process, then the doors never even open.  Academic rigor in this context is counter to the experience I want them to have, the process I want them to learn.  Besides, can’t some incredibly important learning actually happen in the midst of putzing around?   If we replace learning with rigor, we cut ourselves off from important pedagogical experiences.  So, I guess what I’m supposed to do now is add extra reading to the syllabus–just because.  Or, maybe, god forbid, more quizzes or exams to make sure they’re learning–but what, I ask, am I attempting to evaluate if the testing process actually runs counter to what I want them to learn?  I think that to read and write well actually demands that we read less.  If the student is motivated to do what I ask of them, it’s actually an incredibly challenging course; if the student isn’t motivated, it’s true they could probably slide by.  But do I add to the workload to make sure the less motivated student works hard enough or do I make the environment productive for the student who is actually going to really work through the reading and questions and writing that I pose to him or her?  I will always vote for the latter.  More reading or more writing does not make better reading or writing, does it? The debate reminds me of the silly “Gordon Rule” in Florida, by which writing was evaluated on a word count, 6,000 a semester to be exact–you know, as long as they write enough words they’ll learn to write.  Hmmm, garbage in, garbage out.   In any course, the question should always be how much does a student learn, not necessarily how hard does the student work.