From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Flowers Bloom (4)—Prairie Enculturation

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Flowers Bloom."
[a] "Flat"  RF
 During the summer, I will be posting segments of a memoir project I have begun that discusses teaching, learning, scholarship, reading...and the venerable, odd University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom, whose bestseller The Closing of the American Mind rocked American education almost twenty-five years ago. I have already written a little bit about Bloom on this blog, and had promised to start posting more pieces starting in June. Read the introduction to the series if you want the full context, but the individual posts are meant to be read on their own (with hints throughout of the larger context).

This is one post in a six-part series. Click below for the other posts:
Floral 1         Floral 2          Floral 3          Floral 4          Floral 5          Floral 6 

Flowers Bloom—A Teaching Memoir
Prairie Enculturation
My passion for the study of culture also began early. My father is an anthropologist, and Northwest Coast Indian art filled our home. Dad’s office was dotted with Kwakiutl fishing spears and Tsimshian raven carvings, and I can remember discussing society and culture almost as soon as I could participate in conversation. I was not much beyond the age at which I suspected Santa Claus to be far from “other”—and could locate him fairly easily within my extended kinship network as variously uncle, grandfather, or mother’s brother’s eldest son—when my dad explained our Christmas rituals according to Marcel Mauss’s theory of the gift. I loved the name that I then pronounced as Marcel Mouse, and could see his point—that presents have a way of forcing obligation. I had already noticed this at birthday parties, as well as in the half-hearted messages (“the present is from the kids”) that adults seemed determined to impart, even as we children turned our attention elsewhere. Most of all, it gave me a way of understanding how adults could ruin a perfectly happy occasion by creating overlapping layers of “gift-opening rules” that frustrated me beyond measure (Shelly goes first and we all watch, then great-grandma, and then Robby).

[b] Prairie imagination  RF
As I grew older, fieldwork and anthropological theory figured prominently in family time. While other families went to the North Dakota-Manitoba Peace Garden, Disney World, or the Wisconsin Dells, we had “fieldwork vacations,” learning about local culture wherever we went, even as my mother read to us from Edith Hamilton’s retellings of Greek and Roman myths. I distinctly remember staying at an Amish commune, as well as taking a long trip one summer to British Columbia that introduced me to Northwest Coast Indian culture and the wildly alliterative name (echoing my fascination with Marcel Mauss) of the Kwakiutl artist Mungo Martin. I already imagined myself an ethnographer, and filled notebooks with reflections on my travels. Heavy vapors of romanticism worked upon me, but still—especially “in the field” in British Columbia—I reveled in the mood as I worked my way through several Big Chief® tablets at the picnic table outside of the family camper.

In time, I upgraded to narrow-ruled notebooks, and could not help but turn my note-taking ambitions to the cultural practices of eastern North Dakota. It was there that I learned how deeply language and culture are intertwined. Every Thanksgiving, my great aunts, grandmother, and seemingly every neighbor on the Dakota plains would start a methodical production of Norwegian pastries. No sooner were the late-night snack plates, turkey sandwiches, and pumpkin pie cleared away than—in an era before Black Friday—these formidable women would haul out the specialized instruments of culinary warfare. Lefse irons and krumkake rollers joined the pots, pans, and baking sheets dotting the kitchen. Even a child could sense the competition in the air. While I returned to my elementary studies in Wisconsin, they baked. Speaking periodically on the phone, they gave each other updates on the number of lefse, kringle, krumkake, and fattigman in process. By the third week of December, each home held a shrine to Norwegian pastry—an impossibly layered tray of baked flour and sugar organized by shape and texture, ready for consumption.

[c] Just a hint (you have no idea)  RF
And reloading. Behind the yuletide dining room scene, the kitchens held formidable reserves. People were expected to visit, and visitors were expected to eat. Every evening, they restocked the display trays. Throughout the Red River Valley, the cyclical itineraries of visiting and eating called to mind the patterns of entreaty and obligation I had learned from Marcel Mauss. It was public and it was performative. Even then, I could not help but think of Kwakiutl Indian chiefs doing ostentatious battle with massive stores of blankets and salmon—all vying in the potlatch for what we call today “cultural capital.” The prolific bakers were famous throughout the valley, and their pastries might be talked about for generations.

And it’s all history. I always associated that world with generations beyond my own. Because I came to visit—doing historical fieldwork, as it were—I spent time almost solely with my grandparents’ and even great-grandparents’ generations.

When I returned from Madison for the culmination of the holidays, we, too, would hit the road. In the winter of 1971, just months after the Minnesota Twins had completed what turned out to be a lackluster (74-86) season, we took the winding country roads from eastern North Dakota, over the Red River, and on to the “Minnesota side”—an hour’s trip through several Scandinavian subcultures. Grain elevators towered over railroad tracks—the juxtaposed linchpins of a fading economy linking towns such as Finley, Taft, and Perley with Fargo, Minneapolis, and Chicago. Even then, as my grandfather told me, Burlington Northern had abandoned thousands of miles of track, and the small town grain elevator was fading away, just as had the dray lines and icehouses of his youth.

Dray lines? Icehouses? I had no concept. Grandpa explained an entire dray line economy with horses and heavy, low carts connecting railroad tracks with stores and homes. Yet it was the icehouses that most intrigued me. Enormous chunks of ice were cut and hauled from the Red River and stored in dark warehouses in the middle of town. Even my father remembers walking into the cool of icehouses as a child, the massive hunks holding a slowly diminishing steadiness under bales of hay, even at the height of summer. I had just learned why my grandparents called that compartment on the passenger side of the car the glove box, and why much more attention was paid to hat racks in their day than in mine. Now I knew why I kept hearing that I should make sure that I don’t stand with the icebox open.

[c] Prairie icehouse  RF
I learned all of these things while sitting among great aunts, uncles, and cousins several generations removed, on holiday visiting feasts in which kringle circulated like so many armbands in the Trobriand Islands. I had already learned to pay attention, to think like an ethnographer about my own culture, and I tried to get it all down when we returned to “base camp” at my grandparents’ home. Before we left Minnesota on that day in 1971, a nonagenarian great-great aunt asked my grandmother, “Did you ever go julekagen?”  My grandma nodded that yes, she had, adding “Those were good times.”

In the car, on the return trip, I asked her about julekagen. She explained that groups of young people would sing Norwegian holiday songs in town. “So it’s Christmas caroling,” I blurted. “Well, yes…and…not exactly,” she added. “It sounds just like it,” I concluded, satisfied that I understood. Grandma wasn’t so sure that I did. She went on to explain some subtleties that today I would call the specifics of cultural practice in the Red River Valley. At the time, though, it seemed simple, and I was sure that I had it figured out. An icebox was an old-fashioned refrigerator; a glove box was an older phrase for glove compartment (even though I never saw anyone store gloves there); and julekagen was Christmas caroling. This history, language, and culture thing didn’t seem quite so difficult, after all. I wrote it all down, and closed my notebook.

***  ***
Years later, sipping coffee in the Ole Store Café in Northfield, Minnesota, I read the Minneapolis StarTribune and speculated, along with the journalists, about whether or not American cyclist Greg Lemond could make up a fifty-one second gap in the final stage of the 1989 Tour de France. The tour organizers had scheduled a time-trial into Paris that day. In most years, during a normal Tour finale, he could never make up the time, and there would be no possibility of victory. In a time trial—a race of rider against the clock (contre la montre, as the French say)—there was a chance, a shred of opportunity. It was unlikely, but it could happen. As I anticipated that day’s events, I also comforted myself by noting that, in addition to summarizing, journalists are required to guess (many call this “prediction”). They are rarely any better at this than the rest of us, and it seemed fitting revenge for the smug certainty that I was sure would follow tomorrow, no matter the results from France.

[d] News  RF
In the booth next to me, I was startled by a tiny voice speaking with a distinctly Norwegian accent. It might have been a great aunt, so close were her enunciations to the linguistic world of my childhood. The Ole Store Café may be near the center of Norwegian culture in Minnesota, but we were far from the Red River Valley of my youth. She was a “native,” and from the homeland. I was sure of it. She spoke again. “Thank you dear,” she told the waitress. “And I think I’ll have some pie.” She stressed the last word, as though it were part of an equation. “Banana cream, please.” The booth walls in the Ole Store were high; I couldn’t see her, and went back to reading my paper—pondering the cycling future.

Minutes later I heard the clink of a plate being set on a table. The tiny voice returned. “Ooohhh…it’s so coooold.” There was a pause, and then the phrase I will always cherish:

Isn’t refrigeration wonderful?

That went into my notebook, too.

This is one post in a six-part series. Click below for the other posts:
Floral 1         Floral 2          Floral 3          Floral 4          Floral 5          Floral 6

Meeting Bloom
It's not at all what you think. I'm no disciple (for better or worse).
 I'll see you there, at the Committee on Social Thought "Sherry Hour" in early October 1987. Don't be late or you'll just get a Bubble-up (remember those?) or a wine cooler (check your history books).

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