high weir

January 31, 2009

Fatherhood and nightmares

Filed under: Uncategorized — jstreed1476 @ 7:01 pm

I recently finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s the story of a father and his son as they wander a post-apocalyptic America. The boy in the book is a little older than my son Clayton–ten or eleven, maybe.

Some kind of catastrophe has burned away almost everybody and everything. The people and places that remain are for the most part dangerous. Shelter is hard to come by; food harder still.

The father keeps reassuring the boy that they are a pair of the “good guys.” The bad guys are murderers, slave drivers, and cannibals. 

The father and the boy are always tired, always cold, always hungry. They talk about carrying the fire in them, but they don’t go into details.

They are not named. Their story is not divided into chapters.

Many passages come to me at odd moments. I remembered this one last night when I was awakened by Jackson. His covers had slipped off, and he was cold.

In the late afternoon it began to rain. They left the road and took a dirt drive through a field and spent the night in a shed. The shed had a concrete floor and at the far end stood some empty steel drums. He blocked the doors with the drums and built a fire in the floor and he made beds out of some flattened cardboard boxes. The rain drummed all night on the steel roof overhead. When he woke the fire had burned down and it was very cold. The boy was sitting up wrapped in his blanket.

What is it?

Nothing. I had a bad dream.

What did you dream about?


Are you okay?


He put his arms around him and held him. It’s okay, he said.

I was crying. But you didnt wake up.

I’m sorry. I was just so tired.

I meant in the dream.


January 30, 2009

Sumus quod sumus

Filed under: Uncategorized — jstreed1476 @ 10:06 pm

I’m not alone in my envy of the classical education enjoyed by the Oxbridge set a hundred years ago.

CS Lewis’s tutorials under The Great Knock are surely an impossible standard, even if they were a bit idealized. Still, the notion of an early and thorough immersion in classical languages and literature does appeal.

Then again, there’s this description by Orwell:

He would tap away at one’s skull with his silver pencil, which, in my memory, seems to have been about the size of a banana, and which certainly was heavy enough to raise a bump: or he would pull the short hairs round one’s ears, or, occasionally, reach out under the table and kick one’s shin. On some days nothing seemed to go right, and then it would be ‘ All right, then, I know what you want. You’ve been asking for it the whole morning. Come along, you useless little slacker. Come into the study.’ And then whack, whack, whack, and back one would come, red-wealed and smarting — in later years Sambo had abandoned his riding-crop in favour of a thin rattan cane which hurt very much more — to settle down to work again. This did not happen very often, but I do remember, more than once, being led out of the room in the middle of a Latin sentence, receiving a beating and then going straight ahead with the same sentence, just like that.

This is my favorite part:

It is a mistake to think such methods do not work. They work very well for their special purpose. Indeed, I doubt whether classical education ever has been or can be successfully carried on without corporal punishment. The boys themselves believed in its efficacy. There was a boy named Beacham, with no brains to speak of, but evidently in acute need of a scholarship. Sambo was flogging him towards the goal as one might do with a foundered horse. He went up for a scholarship at Uppingham, came back with a consciousness of having done badly, and a day or two later received a severe beating for idleness. ‘I wish I’d had that caning before I went up for the exam,’ he said sadly — a remark which I felt to be contemptible, but which I perfectly well understood.

This may bear the same relation to reality as Lewis’s passages on lessons with Kirkpatrick.

Honestly, I think that if I had lived in that era and been born to an education somewhere between these extremes, I would have turned out more or less as I am now, i.e. able to recognize a great many things that I might have learned.

January 13, 2009

A+ Ad

Filed under: Uncategorized — jstreed1476 @ 7:03 pm


Saw this tacked to the door of a Police Science instructor’s office.

January 9, 2009

Failure *is* an option

Filed under: Uncategorized — jstreed1476 @ 8:52 pm
This one looked pretty. But it tasted *wrong.* I forgot to add the salt.

This one looked pretty. But it tasted *wrong.* I forgot to add the salt.

Merlin Mann at 43folders has a great post about “courageous sucking,” which is the flipside of fear of failure:

Nobody likes feeling like a noob, especially when you’re getting constant pressure on all sides to never stick out in an unflattering way. And, in this godforsaken just-add-Wikipedia era of make-believe insight and instant expertise, it’s natural to start believing you must never suck at anything or admit to knowing less than everything — even when you’re just starting out. Clarinets should never squawk, sketch lines should never be visible, and dictionaries are just big, dumb books of words for cheaters and fancy people. Right?

I think finding your own comfort with the process (whatever that process ends up being) might just be the whole game here — being willing to put in your time, learn the craft, and never lose the courageousness to be caught in the middle of making something you care about, even when it might be shit and you might look like an idiot fumbling to make it. What’s the worst thing that could happen?

Emphasis mine.

He’s talking about taking up photography. I can relate by way of my recent passion for bread making.

I started making bread earlier this year for a lot of reasons, but mainly because I love eating good bread and watching others eat it, too. Making bread is an ancient craft, and people have been doing it successfully under all kinds of unhelpful conditions far longer than history can record. Honestly, making a passable loaf isn’t very difficult.

But it’s tempting to experiment, so a hobby that starts with a basic sandwich loaf or trendy no-knead artisan bread soon expands to all the variations of water, flour, yeast, salt, and everything that can be added to dough. That’s when failures start to pile up.

(Oddly–maybe typically–a plain old baguette, which is among the simplest breads in terms of ingredients, is one of the hardest to master.)

A bad or just insipid loaf is hardly a disaster, but it’s no fun to watch it languish on the counter because nobody likes it. And since bread is made to share, it sometimes feels like a failure to deliver something larger. Also, because it’s such a basic skill, doing it badly seems double-bad.

But in truth, even average homemade bread is about 10 times better than anything the typical supermarket offers.

Funny: Merlin’s wife rolls her eyes when he can’t dash out of the house on a five-minute errand without slinging a camera around his neck. I know I’m driving the people around me nuts with my incessant baking, and it takes a real effort of will to resist working bread into casual conversation. It’s an almost irresistible resource for someone who likes to speak figuratively.

Anyway, doing something badly, or at just boringly, is part of the path to mastery. So is hanging out at breadmaking communities like The Fresh Loaf, and checking out library books, and watching Alton Brown do his thing. Getting through the repetitious stretch and dumping a few doorstop loaves will, I trust, be worth it.

October 31, 2008

Car Tipping

Filed under: Uncategorized — jstreed1476 @ 1:32 am

My first real job was as a stockboy at the Coralville K-Mart. The best thing about it–apart from getting paid in cash (no kidding)–was the chance to befriend the oddballs working there.

Danny wore a necktie shaped like a fish at least once a week. He was in his mid-thirties, at least. We called him Danny Fishtie.

Claudia the assistant manager remains the only 55-year-old female figure-eight-track driver I’ve ever known.

Mr DeHart the manager answered bargain hunters with offers of a higher price.

I especially liked getting on Scott’s good side. He was a chain-smoking mulletted guy who patroled the farthest reaches of the West High parking lot with a tribe of scary metalhead roughs. I was terrified the first day I saw him in the stockroom because I was sure he’d spot me as the kid he threatened to beat up the year before in the Old Capital Mall’s Aladdin’s Castle. (I accidentally budged ahead of him en route to Spy Hunter.) But he didn’t recognize me. And he was actually a pretty nice guy.

Once he gave me a ride home in his terrifying Dodge Dart. No seatbelts, missing window, trunk held shut with a clothes hanger threaded through what looked like a bullet hole. Beer cans rolling around. We roared down quiet Coralville streets at about 75 miles per hour. It was way more frightening than any taxi ride I’ve ever endured.

At one point, he offered to sell me the Dart for a hundred bucks. I really, really wanted to buy it. For a week, some buddies and I cooked up plans like chopping off the roof to make it a convertible. We also thought it would be fun to have for the sole purpose of wrecking it. Not far from my grandparents’ house, in a trench worn deep by rain, a half dozen cars were piled every which way. Passing hunters peppered them with shotgun blasts. At the time, that seemed like a fitting end to the Dart.

But it never went further than lunchtable planning. I knew my parents would veto the purchase, and the last thing I wanted was to wind up asking Scott to take his car back. (If that had come to pass, I’d’ve let the money thing drop, as demanding it back would’ve been out of the question.)

I thought of all this when I read this highly entertaining account of a guy and his friends tipping a car that he didn’t have any use for. 

I eventually told Scott about the Aladdin’s Castle incident. He laughed and claimed that he didn’t remember it at all. “I was probably drunk,” he said.

October 29, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — jstreed1476 @ 6:40 pm

Today I ran across a review by Alberto Manguel, one of my favorite contemporary writers, of book about Borges, one of my favorite writers ever. Manguel’s elegantly written review was favorable and I can imagine enjoying the book. But honestly, I don’t plan to track it down.

I’m less and less motivated to read critical work these days. Time, so slippery in Borges, is not in great supply in my household. Very little remains at the end of an ordinary day. Better by far to dive into fictions and poems themselves, no?

Books I’ve finished lately:

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin

Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian

A Bend in the River, V.S. Naipaul

I’m currently reading The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux. It’s fantastic so far.

* Sustained silent reading–the optimistic name given by schools to periodic, building-wide fits of inactivity. Scheduled sessile repose?

October 23, 2008

_____ as a BUTTON!

Filed under: Uncategorized — jstreed1476 @ 4:25 pm

Foods of the Eighties

Filed under: Uncategorized — jstreed1476 @ 4:21 pm

Kottke linked this (not terribly good) list of foods from the Eighties. Here are my additions:

Pepsi Free – got a bump from Back to the Future but didn’t survive the decade, I think

Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal – My brother was addicted to this. To me, it was another sign that our parents indulged him.

Choco Bliss – A Hostess-brand (I think) snack cake. Chocolate-frosted chocolate cake with chocolate whipped cream filling inside. I’d eat three in row!

New York Seltzer – Super-sweetened soda sold in tiny little bottles. Peach flavor was great.

Cherry 7up – I can’t think of it without remembering the commercial with a meet-cute between two very acid-washed-jeans-jacket teens.

Quiche – maybe it was big in the 70s, too, but I remember its invasion of every holiday gathering from about ’82-’87. Easter, especially.

Budget Gourmet microwave meals – My dad and I would eat one of these (Swedish meatballs, usually) as a “light supper” before heading to the Rec for pickup basketball. Tiny, loaded with salt, easy to overcook, and just barely good enough.

Skor candy bars – Loved the Viking-themed commercials.

That’s off the top of my head. But a lot of my other food memories from that decade (and I think about food plenty) are less branded, more local or home-cooked.

Stir-fry – one of my Dad’s coworkers was from Thailand, and she showed my mom how to make honest-to-goodness egg rolls (never had their equal since), stir-fried anything, delicious sea-weed and tofu soup (no kidding!), and first-rate rice.

Coffee and ice-cream from Iowa City’s long-gone Great Midwestern Ice Cream Company – where I learned to pretend to read literature and act like an English major.

Soups and sandwiches from Iowa-City’s long-gone Bushnell’s Turtle deli – I’m pathetically nostalgic about my one-time hometown.

Seafood chowder – most Christmases, my mom mad a terrific chowder full of shrimp, crab, whitefish, potatoes, carrots, and so one. Campbell’s cheese soup was its base, oddly enough.

September 24, 2008

Some Answers You Might Give

Filed under: Uncategorized — jstreed1476 @ 7:05 pm

Driving through the long hills and small towns of Iowa yesterday, I listened to a cd of poets reading their work. I was especially taken by some of David Ignatow’s words. He was recommended to me while I was still in high school, but I had forgotten him.

For My Daughter in Reply to a Question

We’re not going to die.
we’ll find a way.
We’ll breathe deeply
and eat carefully.
We’ll think always on life.
There’ll be no fading for you or for me.
We’ll be the first
and we’ll not laugh at ourselves ever
and your children will be my grandchildren.
Nothing will have changed
except by addition.
There’ll never be another as you
and never another as I.
No one ever will confuse you
nor confuse me with another.
We will not be forgotten and passed over
and buried under the births and deaths to come.

Like Dylan Thomas below, he makes his point by saying the opposite of what he really means.

Some Questions You Might Ask

Filed under: Uncategorized — jstreed1476 @ 6:38 pm

Lots of libraries give away their old catalog cards as note paper—what else to do with them, really? I love grabbing a stack of them and seeing what turns up.


Here’s a collection of titles from a small-town library I visited the other day:

Why are some people left-handed?

Why are they starving themselves?

Why the cock crows three times.

Why mosquitoes buzz in people’s ears.

Why I’m afraid of bees.

Why do people take drugs?

Why do our bodies stop growing?

Why did Grandpa die?

Why Christmas trees aren’t perfect.


I thought about linking these titles to whatever Amazon has on them, but they’re better left as gnomic little riddles, right?


The post title is cribbed from a poem by Mary Oliver. I like the poem–I like a lot of Oliver’s work–but I almost prefer the found-poem that the titles make. Which reminds me of Annie Dillard’s account of reading the first lines-index of a poetry anthology. And that makes me think of . . .


That’s the English major’s curse–everything you read brings to mind something else.

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