Apples and Books

HaralsonA couple of social days in a row have worn this introvert out, even though both of my friends are introverts.

Wednesday I went with my friend Nancy on an apple orchard outing. We visited four of them! I’ve been on an applesauce kick, so I stocked up: half a peck each of Haralsons and SnowSweets, a full peck of a mix of Haralsons, Honeycrisp, and SweeTango; and two Honeygolds (that taste very much like pears, which I thought would make a very interesting applesauce).

Applesauce is easy peasy to make. Take your apples, core them, cut in chunks (I usually do quarters, then halve the quarters, and then cut crosswise). I leave the skins on because I like the added crunch (and the good stuff in the skin), but I make the pieces smaller than most applesauceapplesauce recipes because that seems to work better with the skins. Put in a large saucepan, add about 1/3 cup water per four large apples, bring to a boil over high heat, turn down to low, stir every five minutes or so, and add more water if the water totally disappears at the bottom or it seems to be getting too thick for your taste. When the apples are soft, it is done (usually 10-30 minutes, depending on how many apples). I use a potato masher because I prefer a lumpy applesauce, and I try to remember to add cinnamon before I put it in the jars.

CookedAfter the apple orchards we stopped for a beer and more talking and catching up. When we got around to books, Nancy asked if I had any interest in reading Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked, together. Oh yes! We did this a few years ago with Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, read a chapter a week and discussed it throughly, often page by page. We are not as geographically close now and weekly is probably not practical, but we will still read the book in chunks and meet as we progress. It is a very fun—and deep—way to read a book.

Then on Thursday I got together with Sheila and among other things, we finalized our monthly book themes for next year. There are no rules around this, except that you read at least one book related to the theme each month. Usually most of my reading relates to the theme (particularly poetry—I find the this approach a great way to find some of the poetry books that have been waiting for years to be read). I tend to want the theme reflected in the title of the book, while Sheila is more interested in its reflecting the content of the book. I’m afraid this says something really shallow about me, but sometimes I can be rigid, and I like being rigid in this particular way. Here are the themes we’ve chosen for 2015:

  • January—Year
  • February—Love
  • March—Number
  • April—Spiritual
  • May—Color
  • June—Award Winners (repeat from 2014)
  • July—Roads & highways
  • August—Time (repeat from 2014)
  • September—Academic/education
  • October—Scary/haunted
  • November—Food
  • December—Literary Characters

One of the best things about the reading theme is that I pull books off the shelf that I bought years ago. Books I bought with good intention and then never got around to; new things came in, and now they’ve been languishing, sometimes for decades (one, Sara Crewe by Frances Hodgson Burnett, for 40 years!). The monthly reading theme levels the playing field in a way; the new books no longer rule the roost.

For someone who has tended to buy more books than they read, it’s a refreshing change of pace.

The Villanelle (and Other Poetry Forms)

I loved poetry as a kid. Especially in adolescence, I would copy poems, song lyrics (which I sometimes didn’t realize were songs), and various quotes and snippets into notebooks. I didn’t know anything about poetry, but I knew what spoke to me and I kept a record of it. I still have two of those notebooks.

Then I lost track of poetry. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that I ventured into the poetry realm again, and it was like finding an old friend. A childhood friend, spanning decades. As I immersed myself in poetry, I would occasionally run across something from one of my early notebooks. Back then, I just copied things down willy-nilly (often omitting titles and authors). I didn’t know the title or the author when I copied it into my notebook when I was 13, but I immediately recognized Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” when I laid eyes on it as an adult.

My adult approach to poetry was a bit less haphazard, and included books about reading poetry, most notably How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry by Edward Hirsch. I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone who is interested in but perhaps a bit intimidated by the wide world of poetry.

My biggest discovery was the forms. Forms are various kinds of structured poems—haiku and sonnets you are likely familiar with, but there is also the sestina, ghazal, rondeau, pantoum, triolet, and my favorite, the villanelle. (There are many additional forms—here is a good introduction.)

I think I ran across Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle “One Art” before I realized she was also the author of my beloved fish poem.

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Hirsch calls the villanelle “that defiant French contraption with its roots in Italian folk song, which came into American poetry late in the nineteenth century.” The villanelle typically has six stanzas, the first five are three lines long and the final is four lines long. The first line and last line of the first stanza take turns repeating as the final line of the next four stanzas, and then comprise the last two lines of the poem.

Here’s one you may be familiar with:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

–Dylan Thomas

In addition to the repetitions of the lines, you might have also noticed the rhyming patterns: The first and third lines rhyme, as do the middle lines (and second line of the last stanza). One more:

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I cannot go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree, but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

–Theodore Roethke

They are hard to write! When I first read one, I thought they must be incredibly difficult. But as I read more, it seemed maybe they wouldn’t be so tough, so I tried a few. Miserable attempts (but better than not trying at all, and a good learning experience). So I put it aside permanently (I thought). But recently I’ve dipped my toe back into the villanelle waters, with three rough drafts (hopefully to be honed in the upcoming cold dark months of winter).

The forms are fun. If you are interested, here are a few links:


Reading Theme: Foreign Country; Conclusion: Yikes!

Klein bookAfter I finished No Ordinary Time, the 700+ page tome by Doris Kearns Goodwin, for some crazy reason I picked up another large tome (500+ pages) the next day. Oh, truth be told, I picked it up because I couldn’t wait to read Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. It has made for an extremely interesting read alongside some of the books for October’s reading theme: foreign country.

The first book it paired with in a creepy futuristic way was The Windup Girl,Windup by Paulo Bacigalupi. Set in Bangkok, Thailand, in a post-petroleum world, the U.S. is holding much of the world hostage through developing and dispersing plagues (affecting primarily crops, but animals are often fallout), and then offering genetically engineered foods and seeds which resist the plague. Does this sound scarily like Monsanto to you? Not to worry, the company is Agri-Gen (with Pur-Cal as a strong competitor). Shades of General Mills, Cargill, and ADM. NOT a future very difficult to imagine. In fact, we are already halfway there, with our round-up pesticides and our round-up-pesticide-resistant seeds. Oh, and of course the seeds are sterile. The greatest abomination against nature I can think of—to deny seeds reproduction. It is the very essence of seeds to grow and provide more seeds.

Next, capitalism. I’ve only just started Lost and Found in Russia, but as Russia moved away from Communism they applied “Shock Therapy”—the approach favored by the World Bank and grounded in Western economic theory (think Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics). As a result of this recommended approach, prices shot up, with inflation reaching 2000%. Within a year, over 40% of Russians were living in poverty (compared to 1.5% before the “economic revolution”). The seriously dark side of capitalism.

L PerdidaEven the graphic novel I’m reading, La Perdida by Jessica Abel, brings up issues of capitalistic dominance. A Mexican says to a visitor from the States, “You grow up with the dollar who rides on the backs of the poor people of the world, and guns in every closet, and Hollywood that tell you you are right! . . . I am also upset at the government of the United States and el NAFTA! They do not leave me alone! . . . [Y]ou represent the invasion of American Hollywood and imperialism of cultural and economics.”

Eula Biss, in Notes from No Man’s Land, also mentions NAFTA. (I meant to read this for theBiss award-winning books theme for last month—it won the National Book Critics Circle Award—but I didn’t finish it until early October. An excellent book focusing on racial issues, and the best book on race by a white person that I’ve read yet.) After a trip to Mexico, Biss reflects on the American-owned power plants and maquiladoras on the U.S-Mexican border, and the opposition of the Zapatistas and the Indian peasants in Chiapas to NAFTA.

While Clinton was promising that NAFTA would “lift all boats,” the Zapatistas warned that NAFTA would bring falling prices for corn, falling wages for workers, and the loss of land to foreign investors. That is exactly what happened. Because Iowa corn imported into Mexico is heavily subsidized by the United States government, the price of corn in Mexico fell by half during the first ten years of NAFTA. More than a million farmers were displaced from their land and forced to migrate to the cities or the United States, where they became day laborers, picking U.S. crops.

So wouldn’t you think that Mexico would just give preference to local corn? Well it turns out that they can’t. It’s illegal. I have learned from Klein’s book that under the rules of the World Trade Organization, supports for local industry are considered protectionist. In fact, favoring local industry constitutes illegal discrimination. Whoa. Yes! “[T]he most basic rule of trade law is that you can’t privilege domestic over foreign.” Have you ever heard such a cockamamie law? Not to mention destructive—to our local workers, our local economies, our environment, and the world.

We always (at least I always) want to blame the Republicans for these huge agreements thatclinton 2
benefit the rich at the expense of pretty much everyone else but most especially the poor and even more especially, poor farmers. But no, this time it was the Democrats—Bill Clinton, specifically, with the support of the National Wildlife Federation, the Environmental Defense Fund, Conservation International, National Audubon Society (that just breaks my heart), Natural Resources Defense Council (they used to be my #1 national charity), and the World Wildlife Fund. (In case you want to know who didn’t cave to Al Gore and big business, that would include Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and a lot of small organizations.)

We have a very serious uphill climb ahead of us. It’s not all doom and gloom. Naomi Klein is even cautiously optimistic. If we act now, in a very serious, concerted way, actually privileging the planet over the economy, we could avoid the tipping point. We don’t have to return to the neanderthal stage. Though if we don’t do anything, we probably will. I haven’t gotten to the optimistic part of the book yet. I’ll get back to you.

A New Poetry Form

KisaengThe reading theme this month is foreign country. My favorite poetry book so far is Songs of the Kisaeng (translated and introduced by Constantine Contogenis and Wolhee Choe). The Kisaeng were Korean women of the 16th and 17th centuries, a combination of professional entertainer, performing artist, and courtesan. They were typically selected from the lower classes for their beauty, youth, and talent and worked for the government performing arts bureaucracy. They established a beautiful tradition of love poetry, some of which is captured in this collection. Here is an example:

I have a will like a blue mountain
his love for me is a green running stream.
Shall a blue mountain change
with the rushing of green waters?

He will not forget this blue mountain;
his green cries resound as he goes.

–Hwang Jini

Here’s another:

Wild geese sang across a thin jade sky;
I opened my window, leaned out to see
—moonlit snow had so filled my garden,
light seemed to reach wherever he might be.

This vision took such deep root
its cold glimmers faded within me.


This is a lovely little book that has been languishing on my shelves for six years. Again I have to mention that one of the things I love most about the reading theme is that it’s getting me to finally pull some of these older books off my shelves, and I’m finding some gems.

I’ve also learned about a new form of poetry (new to me I mean), the sijo. It goes way back to the Koryo Dynasty (918-1382). I am going to do a little research to find out more about it. I am intrigued. Maybe I will try to write one!

The Devolving Job Market

The new Minnesota Job Vacancy Survey is out, and while the bigpicture news seems pretty good, the data are actually quite grim.

Good news first: Jobs are becoming plentiful, at least in Minnesota. In fact, the job vacancy rate hit a 13-year high in the second quarter of 2014. There were 1.6 unemployed people per job vacancy in the second quarter compared to 2.1 a year prior.  To give you a little perspective on how good that is, there were 7.9 job seekers per vacancy second quarter 2009.

The bad news: Wages are going down. The median wage per job opening in the second quarter was $12.05 an hour, down from $12.50 a year ago. Median (or midpoint) means that half pay more, half pay less. At $12.05/hour, a full-time job earns $25,064 a year. And half of the currently available Minnesota jobs pay less than that.

More bad news—42% of job openings are part time. This is not atypical. I tracked back a bit, and the percentage of part-time jobs got as low as 38% (2011) and as high as 45% (2013). The reason I consider 42% of vacant jobs bad news is that with the low prevailing median wage, more than 4 in 10 of open jobs won’t even earn that full-time annual wage of $25,064.

A closer look at the data. The largest number of job vacancies come in six occupations: sales, food prep/serving, healthcare support, office/admin support, transportation, and healthcare practitioners and techs. These six occupations make up more than half (55.9%) of job openings.

The single largest occupation with open jobs is sales (and related occupations), with a median wage of $9.99/hr. If you work full time at the median wage, you will earn just over $20,000 a year. But that probably won’t happen because 61% of the jobs are part time. The next most available occupation would be food prep and serving, with a median wage of only $8/hr (annual wage of $16,640 full time). I was surprised to see that 88% of the jobs in this category were for full-time work.

Most of the top six open occupations pay relatively low median wages, with only one coming in over $20/hour (healthcare practitioners and techs—$26.08/hr). Likely not coincidentally, it is also at the bottom of the top six in terms of open jobs. The runner up would be transportation ($13.15/hour).

Another rather grim statistic: Only 36% of the open jobs require any education beyond high school, meaning that about two-thirds (64%) of Minnesota’s job vacancies require only a high school diploma. At a time when higher education is vaunted as the pathway to opportunity, and student loan debt has reached astronomical highs, more college graduates are fighting for a smaller piece of the pie.

High-wage job opportunities in Minnesota are shrinking. Job openings are down for management, computer/math, architecture/engineering, and legal occupations. We are downsizing (and sometimes outsourcing) our high-wage jobs. We are devolving into a low-wage economy.

This is not all bad. Lower wages mean less consumption which is good for planet earth. Maybe not so much for the economy, but I would rather have my trees and lakes than rich bankers and oil magnates.

Over the next 10 years, I anticipate a lot of angry young adults who have pursued education but can’t find jobs that require said education. Bumpy ride.

September Reprise

What happened to September? I keep thinking I need to do the August Reprise, but here it is October, and the missing month is September. Where did September go? What did I do? More walking and bicycling, for one thing. As the weather gets cooler, I get more active. (This will not necessarily hold true in the deep of winter, when my activities are mostly indoors and often involve books.)

Award booksSpeaking of which, I read 15 books in September, nearly all award winners (which was the September reading theme). I read more fiction than anything else (6), with one being a graphic novel, two YA books, two mysteries, and Haruki Murakami’s newest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki & His Years of Pilgrimage (the one non-theme book).

I read five poetry books, with Geography III by Elizabeth Bishop and Presentation Piece by Marilyn Hacker as the primary standouts (and Geography III going on my favorite-books-of-all-time list). As for nonfiction, I finally finished No Ordinary Time, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (I liked it, but not nearly so much as Team of Rivals). Perhaps the most thought-provoking book of theprostitute month was the feminist treatise King Kong Theory (Virginie Despentes), which got me to seriously question my absolute opposition to legalizing prostitution. Not just because the women would be safer, but on moral principle. Yes, I know! Read the book and see what you think. This won the Lambda Literary Award.

I also managed to include the National Book Critics Circle Award (2), Eisner Award, Harvey Award, Ignatz Award, National Book Award (2), Whitbread, Minnesota Book Award, Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, James Laughlin Award (2), Edgar Award, Agatha Award, Anthony Award, and the Pulitzer. Both Sheila and I loved this theme and have decided to do it again next year. (We are also repeating the time theme, and are starting to consider other themes for next year.) It’s fun to have new reading adventures to look forward to.

In the writing world, I drafted three villanelles! Mind you, I’ve loved the villanelle form for years, and have tried to write them before, but I couldn’t find a theme or emotion that seemed to fit the form. But this month I have drafted three! They need a lot of work, to be sure, but I am still excited because I feel I finally understand a bit of the essence of the villanelle. (Obsession helps.)

I’ve continued the daily haiku project (11th month!) and the weekly Obama postcard (I have now sent 15—how can I have been doing this for 15 weeks already?). I was less prolific on the blog, with only five posts, but I figure the villanelles are a bit of a trade-off.

In the herb world I continued harvesting and drying the chamomile and calendula, put up a hops tincture and a lemon balm tincture, and am drying a bunch of sage and a bit of mullein.

September also included a staycation with my spouse. We hit five bookstores (Moon Palace, Sixth Chamber, Present Moment, Books Revisited, and Dreamhaven) and got 18 books. We bookended the week with music: JoAnn Funk at the St. Paul Hotel to start us off, and Maud Hixson at the Bloomington Art Center for the closing number. We dined out a bit (Dixie’s, Riverview Wine Bar, Blackbird) and walked a lot. I’m not sure they quite balanced out.

JoAnn Funk & Jeff Brueske

JoAnn Funk & Jeff Brueske

On to October. One of my favorite months of the year.