Sunday, July 23, 2006

Power and Rhetorical Jam

This afternoon, my phone rang. I answered it because that is what I usually do when the phone rings.

“We just went blueberry picking and I thought of you,” KRO said, introductions unnecessary. “We picked so many blueberries, and I don’t think the peaches were ripe yet when you were out last year, but they are now, and oh . . . the peaches.”

KRO was my roommate when we were in college. Last year I visited her at her Washington, DC home, and we spent a day out in Maryland picking blueberries. We picked buckets and buckets of blueberries, so many that a good portion of my remaining days with her were spent trying to figure out what to do with the blueberries. Today, she and her husband picked peaches as well as blueberries, and now have a glut of fruit on their hands. During the fifteen minutes it took to pick more peaches than she and her husband could imagine consuming, the two of them also ate three peaches each. She wondered over the phone what she’d do with all she brought home.

I introduce this reflection by telling you about KRO and peaches, because just at the moment she called, I was making jam, a jam that is primarily composed of peaches. Making this jam was making me think. It made me think about the history of food, and how learning how to preserve food must have been one of the hallmarks of civilization. People have known for hundreds, if not thousands of years that sugar acts as a preservative, so it’s natural to use it in jams to make summer’s fleeting bounty last through a fruit-less winter. (Of course, I’m thinking of places other than my own home in lovely Southern California, where some sort of fruit is available all year long.) Preserving food allowed access to important vitamins and minerals throughout the year, which had to have made people stronger and healthier. Communities who were stronger and healthier were probably much more powerful; perhaps learning the art of preserving was part of how certain ancient communities overpowered others. In reading about how to safely can the jam that I was making, I came across an interesting piece of information from relatively recent history. According to Jean Anderson’s Green Thumb Preserving Guide:
“Napoleon is, in a way, responsible for the discovery of canning although his motives, to be sure, were less for the advancement of mankind than for the advancement of his own armies. With as many of his troops dying unheroically of starvation as heroically in battle, he determined to find a way of keeping them well-fed and strong. So in the early 19th century, Napoleon offered a prize of 12,000 francs (about $250,000 at the present rate of exchange) to the man who could devise a way of preserving food safely. The man who did was a French confectioner named Appert. His breakthrough discovery, as guarded a secret in Napoleon’s day as the A-bomb during World War II, was simply to seal food airtight inside bottles and boil it.” (Anderson 18)
Appert developed the water-bath method of canning food as a way to effectively feed an army and build an empire. Really, jam is all about power.
As I mused over the connection between jam and military might (and before being interrupted by KRO’s call), I began thinking about this upcoming school year. Thoughts about teaching began gumming up my jam thoughts, and I struggled to separate the jam from the classroom.

For most of the waking hours of last week, I participated in a workshop designed to prepare me to teach Advanced Placement English Language and Composition (AP English Language) this upcoming school year. I have never taught this course before; in fact, my school has never offered this course before. I pushed to open this course at my school because teaching writing is one of my primary purposes in life, and I felt that, although my school has moved further and further towards incorporating writing into every area of school life (and this is a very smart move), the school still had no opportunity for the students to experience intense writing instruction. Clearly, opening the AP Language class at my school is move in the right direction, and, despite the fact that I learned so much at the workshop, I’m terrified to teach the class.

This might surprise some of you who know me. You may know that the classroom has long since ceased to terrify me, and you may know that teaching is one area in my life in which I have a fair amount of confidence. I’m good at getting students to think deeply, getting them to write, and sometimes, even helping them learn to be independent readers, readers who seek out good books on their own time. Each year, of course, I meet students who challenge me in new ways, and there are the students who I fail to reach—no matter how hard I try. I do my best to keep up on new strategies and new research, and frequently talk with others in my field about how to continue to improve at my job. On the whole, I am proud of the hard work I put into my classroom. However, the AP Language conference has caused me to re-examine my abilities, and frankly, the prospect of teaching this course is giving me the willies.

Why? I took this class when I was in high school and did very well in it. That was so long ago. I’ve examined multiple copies of the test recently, and even taken a couple practice tests, and I've done well on them, but I haven’t been able to complete them in the time limitations that the test requires. I’m out of practice in taking tests. More frighteningly, I’m out of practice in the level of reading the test demands. In the workshop last week, we read Swift, Franklin, Douglass, and Hawthorne. I’ve read my share of Swift and Hawthorne in college and while teaching Senior English, but never Douglass or Franklin. And, college was a long time ago. I haven’t picked up a book whose syntax or diction has challenged me in any way for years. That doesn’t mean I read fluff; it just means I’ve been reading contemporary authors whose ways of using language are readily decipherable to me. (Shakespeare doesn’t count. The texts that I have taught in the last 10 years—Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet—are still delightful and newly revealing to me each time I teach them, but I’ve read and thought so much about them that there is nothing unfamiliar in them any more.) This fall, I’ll be teaching texts that are plain old tough. They’ll be new to me, and I’ll need to approach them with more rhetorical analysis than I have done since I took this class in high school 15 years ago. 15 years is a long time to go without practicing something. My rhetorical analysis skills are more than a smidgin rusty.

During the workshop, my teacher introduced us to many ways to teach rhetorical analysis, all of which were very helpful. But more helpful to me was her reminder of the history of rhetoric. The Sophists (namely Gorgias and Isocrates) developed the tools of rhetoric to help the growing middle class become participants in Greek society. Then Socrates came along, praising the dialectic and complaining about rhetoric because, really, rhetoric doesn’t lead to truth and it can be quite manipulative. Aristotle followed him and balanced out his ideas. He pointed out that, “Rhetoric is the counterpart to Dialectic,” but he saw the value of each. Dialectic leads to truth, but rhetoric leads to power. Quintillian used Aristotle’s ideas and created a curriculum of logic that the Roman Empire used in each territory it entered. This curriculum gave native students the means to enter the grand political conversation. It gave them the tools to explain, persuade, and argue, to become true participants in Roman society. Rhetoric allowed empowered citizenry.

That’s it. I teach because everyone deserves a fair chance and right now, not everyone gets it. I teach so my students have the tools they need to make decisions, to lead, to make change happen. I teach to give my students power. 15 years after learning the basics of rhetoric, I’ve forgotten why they were important in the first place. Now, I wonder why I haven’t more thoroughly explored the relationship between ethos, logos, and pathos, and the connections between speaker, audience, and purpose with each student I’ve encountered in my teaching career.

Next year, I will have to read deeply, think hard, and work my ass off to teach texts that are unfamiliar and difficult even to their teacher. I’ll have to use strategies that are new to me. I’ll be in that place where real learning begins to happen, that uncomfortable position right on the edge of clarity. It is scary to me, but I know it’s the right thing to do. My students deserve empowerment.

And, I’ll have some great jam to make the difficult year just a little sweeter.

Rhetorical Jam
I devised this recipe came after reading so many other recipes, exploring proportions, ingredients, methods, and whatnot, that I cannot say it arose from any one place. In fact, I think that I can safely say the recipe is mine.

You will need:
3 cups of scalded, peeled peaches, finely chopped (see Note 1)
1 cup roughly mashed blackberries
1 envelope of powdered pectin
5 cups of granulated sugar
½ teaspoon unsalted butter (to help reduce foam)
¼ cup of cognac (see Note 2)

To make the jam:
Stir the fruit and pectin together in a large saucepan over high heat. Bring to a full boil, stirring frequently. You will only need to boil the fruit a minute or so at this step. Add all of the sugar and the butter and bring the mixture back to a full boil. This may take some time, depending on the size and shape of your pan—it took me nearly ten minutes to get it back to a full boil. Boil for approximately one minute (it won’t kill your jam to boil it a little longer), then remove from heat. Pour in the cognac and stir to disperse. With a large, flat spoon, skim off any foam that has collected.

Pour or ladle the mixture into sterile jars. Process according to your water-bath canner’s directions, or let come to room temperature then freeze.

This recipe makes a little more than 3 pints of jam.

Note 1: To scald and peel peaches, bring a large pot of water to boil and prepare a large bowl of ice water. When the water on the stove comes to a boil, drop in the peaches. Leave the peaches in the hot water for about a minute, then remove with a slotted spoon and drop into the ice water. After about a minute in the ice water, you’ll find that the skins have become so loose, you can slip them easily off of the fruit. Slip the skins off and discard (or eat—the skins taste great to me), then chop the fruit.

Note 2: If your alcohol isn’t to your taste, omit it. You’ll still have a wonderful jam. ECG accuses me of adding alcohol to nearly everything, but I love the complexity it adds to flavors. Here, it adds a bass note to the bright fruit flavors.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


I'm back in my own chair at my own desk in my own home in my own town. Whew.

But, before I wrap up and reflect on the trip, let me give you the run-down of our last day, Monterey to Pasadena. We had gorgeous driving weather down the 1, but also encountered much more road construction that we expected.

But Hearst Castle blew us away. Oh, the luxury! Oh, the to-hell-with-it spending that went into the place! Oh, how I wish that I was able to be a guest of Hearst's just once! I think I would have chosen the Celestial Suite as my guest room--yes, guests had choice over where they'd like to stay.

We followed the 1 down to Cambria then cut across and up towards Paso Robles on the 46. I didn't take any pictures of this stretch because I was too busy dreaming about living on a ranch there. This was my ideal environment: rugged hills spotted with oak and madrone. I need my sun and could never live in a forest, but I love trees, especially trees with the craggy attitudes of oaks and the lovely auburn movie-starness of madrones. At Paso Robles, we headed south on the 101 to Buellton and Solvang. We found another farmers' market in Solvang (yes, more blackberries!), bought ourselves a cardamom-laced pastry (to have for breakfast the next day) at a local bakery, and headed to The Hitching Post in Buellton for dinner. You may recognize the name of the restaurant--it was made mildly famous by the movie Sideways. It is where Miles and Jack meet Maya. You see Miles sidle up to the bar and order a glass of Highliner Pinot Noir before downing many bottles with Jack over dinner. I didn't know about the restaurant before the movie, but I didn't go there because of it. I recommended it to ECG because I predicted (after reading about it in several guides) that it would sate ECG's passion for good beef and I'd be able to have a glass of something wonderful. Both of those predictions came true. I ordered a half rack of baby backs: smoked, not sauced, they were the perfect sum of pork and fire. ECG ordered a steak that turned out to be much more than 15 ounces of beefy goodness. I drank two glasses of spicy-juicy Syrah, and ECG took advantage of the designated driver program the restaurant has. ECG agreed not to drink, and therefore received a free smoked mushroom appetizer and free non-alcoholic beverage. The mushrooms more than compensated for not drinking, as they were smoked over the oak grill, then tossed in a pan and sauteed with garlic, and finished with the same Syrah that I drank at dinner. They are served with crusty slices of bread to sop up the wine-mushroom-juice. When I asked ECG over the meal what his favorite part of the trip had been, he looked at me seriously and said, "These mushrooms."

The two glasses of wine put me into half-snooze mode for the two or so hours left in the trip.

We finally made it home after 9pm. Two attention-hungry cats greeted us at the door, and the simple joys of being home began again.

This trip proved to be one of the most memorable of my life. I feel like I learned so much more about the state in which I live, about the relationship between me and ECG, and about how to drive in difficult circumstances. I've learned about packing, finding bathrooms, and taking good pictures. These lessons blur in my mind because they are so recently acquired, but I know with a few weeks of reflection, I'll be able to clarify specifics. And when I do, perhaps I'll post them here. But in the meantime, let me show you what a car that has traveled 2641.6 miles at an average of 31.7 mpg looks like.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Gray vs. Grey and Thank God for Sun

ECG and I beat feet out of Oregon Sunday morning and headed southwest towards the coast of California. The drive was nice--full of long, swinging curves that were fun to take fast. We sang along at the top of our lungs to the iPod playlists we had built for the road, happy in knowing that we were on the return home. We were also excited about the North Coast of California, as nearly everyone we knew told us it was as pretty as pretty gets. By early afternoon, we hit California, and mixed with the salty coastal fog, we smelled rich, fishy smoke: smoked salmon. We stopped at an stand run by a local American Indian family and purchased traditionally smoked salmon that served as a very tasty lunch. A few miles later, we turned off the freeway to venture deep into the forest to a lush site called Fern Canyon. A small creek has created a deep canyon that has its own humid microclimate, a perfect place for unusual ferns, salamandars, and lots of moss. Getting to the canyon wasn't so simple, as our low-slung vehicle wasn't fond of the creek crossings. We had to hike in, but that allowed us to get a great shot of the elk we saw on the way.

We got into Eureka later Sunday night that we expected, and after a dinner of fried local seafood and chips, crawled into our comfy B&B bed. We thought we would spend Monday morning wandering around Eureka, but the town refused to cooperate with us. We tried exploring, but the acrid grayness of Eureka made us both depressed. It was gray with an a: metallic, flat, dead. The town put both of us in a foul mood that made all of Monday more difficult than necessary.

We used the time we had set aside for Eureka to head to Ferndale instead. Unlike Eureka, Ferndale is grey with an e: soft, comfortable, romantic. Ferndale is a Victorian town, and despite its cutesy charm, is a real working farming center. Green pastures, spotted with dewy-eyed Guernsey cows, surround the town. Ferndale is also home of the annual kinetic sculpture race, where artist/competitors race in funny looking human-propelled contraptions that run on land and in water.

We stopped at a farm stand on the way out of town and picked up some juicy-ripe peaches. Any town that can grow such good peaches is okay in my book.

The Avenue of the Giants was next. At first, the road was phenomenal. The size of the trees and the gravity of their age is mind-boggling, and the color of the light that filters through their needles high above reminds me of lime jello.

But, after hours of being trapped under a tree canopy while winding through curving roads towards the ocean, ECG and I celebrated the first unencumbered sun we'd experienced in a couple days by pulling over and each eating one of those yummy peaches.

We followed the 1 down to Mendocino, a very pretty little artsy town south of Fort Bragg. By the time we got to Mendocino, most of the shops were closed; however, it looks like a fun place to spend a little money.

Some of you know that ECG put in a lot of research before this trip. We looked at maps online and in travel guides. We read books. We talked to people that had taken similar trips. No matter how prepared one is, no one is ever prepared enough for everything, and ECG and I found ourselves in a deeper trouble than we expected. To mix metaphors, we were up shit creek without a ladder. We only knew one way between Mendocino and Willits, where we had booked a little cabin for the night, and that was Little Lake Road to the 20, which heads straight in towards central Willits. Somewhere along the way we must have missed a vital step, for the Little Lake Road we were on never hit the 20. Instead, it led to a dirt road, at the base of which a sign read, "8 miles to 20." I drove those 8 miles of washed out, dusty, precarious road going less than 8 miles an hour, and I still felt like I'd lose control. Rocks bounced against the exhaust plate, and each dip threatened to take out the suspension. Every mile or so, the road split with no signs to direct the driver which turn to take. ECG had to get out of the car with the portable GPS and walk down the road to see if it led towards the mythical 20 we somehow expected to reach. We wondered if we'd be lost in the forest, eaten by bears, and our remains found later by an unsuspecting deer hunter.

Don't fret. We made it, obviously, or I wouldn't be here cheerfully typing away. I certainly earned my rally racing stripes yesterday.

Luckily, we had a great place to crash Monday night. We deserved the comfort we found at Willits Creek Cabin after the difficulty we had traveling that day.

Today, we scratched our plans for the Winchester Mystery House and Half Moon Bay, and instead, headed to Picchetti Winery in Cupertino, where we wandered around in the hills covered with peacocks, a very old pear orchard, and oaks. It was a restful place, and the dusty grass-covered hill smelled enough like home to remind me that we don't have too much further to go.

After a couple of hours enjoying the warm sun, we headed back over the hills towards the ocean. We ended up in Monterey, where we walked through the farmers' market, explored the historic part of town, and ate dinner in Cannery Row. Watch out Steinbeck--you traveled with Charley, but I've got a much better travel companion.

And tomorrow, Hearst Castle, Paso Robles wine country, and home!

Saturday, July 08, 2006


ECG and I are enjoying the unusual in many forms; geological and social peculiarities seem to be two of the themes of the trip (those and blackberries, but more on blackberries will have to come later) and Oregon is rich in both.

Just before the Oregon border, we passed Grass Lake, a marshy expanse with only one outlet for collected water: a lava tube that carries the water away to a unknown destination. And, a couple hours in to Oregon, we got to Crater Lake, one of the most unusual and beautiful creations on this good earth. Crater Lake developed after a volcano exploded, leaving a huge caldera, and another, smaller volcano erupted inside the caldera, providing lava that sealed all the leaks and breaks in its walls. The leakless caldera eventually filled with rainwater, and the resulting lake is one of the deepest and purest in the world. After ECG got one look at the lake, he was panting to take pictures of it, and practically out of the car before I even pulled into a parking spot. Even I got picture happy. Every time I glanced away from the incredible blueness of the lake and then back towards it, I was surprised anew by its beauty.

But, the geology isn't the only thing that makes Oregon unique. In the late sixties, people migrated to Eugene, Oregon from many parts of the country, looking for a "new way" to live. Unfortunately, that "new way" is no longer new, and is instead over thirty years old, and the people that have been living that "new way" are now soft, gray, and suffering from a chronic case of the munchies. This means, of course, Eugene contains the highest concentration of funkadelic tie-die in the nation.

But, this also means that the organic farming movement is in full, glorious force. ECG and I spent the morning walking around the Saturday Market, checking out the crafts (hemp clothing, handmade marbles, beeswax soap, and the like), and exclaiming over the lovely produce. Berries were everywhere! Heads of elephant garlic outsized my own head. We took pictures of all the produce we wished we could take home and of the flowers I wished I had grown myself.

The evening closed with something that wasn't odd at all, a simple, happy celebration of a marriage. Family and friends converged at a small local vineyard to help Doug and Michiko usher in a happy year of husband- and wife-hood. Even mosquitos didn't dare interrupt this perfect, honest event.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Preparation, Or, How I Know ECG is Right for Me

As some of you know, I'm currently roadtripping. This is a long-planned affair. When I found out that my good friend Doug planned to celebrate his marriage in Eugene, Oregon, I asked ECG if he'd go with me. He said he'd not only go, but we should make an event out of it, and so the plans for this epic trip began to sprout from our brains. ECG installed a trip-planning software on my computer, I bought a pile of Lonely Planet guides, and the two of us sat down to make a list of all the things that we wanted to see. We planned around a lot of factors--cost and photographability (a new word for you) the primary ones. And, since we planned so far ahead, we managed to find places that we really wanted to stay in at prices we could afford. We both pictured ourselves snuggling in the romantic cottages and B&Bs we booked, hiking along lush, scenic trails, enjoying warm, treeripe fruit from dusty farm stands.

The planning part of the trip was dreamy. The actual preparation, not so much. We both got a tad jittery in the couple days before the trip, just wanting to get on the road. I fretted over making sure we had everything we needed, and he worried about his car, the price of gas, and whether or not the photographable places would be swarmed with tourists. As our irritability increased before the trip, I wondered whether we'd get along the whole long nine days with few people to keep us company but ourselves.

But, a cat proved to me that ECG and I would have no problem.

Two nights before we left, after I had finally finished baking the banana bread breakfasts and sourdough loaves for sandwiches that would feed us for the first part of the trip, my cat Reggie began to act erratically. He kept opening his mouth very wide, slamming it shut, and making a strange plastic clicking sound in the process. He threw himself against furniture with his mouth open, then would take both front paws and claw inside his mouth. My first instinct (very wrong) was that he was having a seizure. But the noise was so strange and his behavior so purposeful, that ECG and I figured that something was stuck in his mouth. I tried prying Reggie's mouth open as he razorslashed me with those adamantium claws. In the few seconds I could bear the feline weaponry, I pried his mouth wide open, his rough pink tongue waving like a hitch-hiker's thumb. I could see nothing.

ECG tried the same thing with no better result. Then, we cornered Reggie in the office, on the guest bed. I held his paws and neck, while ECG searched Reggie's mouth. He fished around with his fingers and discovered the culprit, a very tough piece of plastic (source still unkown) that wound itself around Reggie's lower teeth. Each time ECG went to pull it out, Reggie snapped jaws shut and cried. That bitch piece of plastic just wouldn't budge. We worked for over two hours, sweating and murmering calming words to Reggie. ECG was patient. I was patient. Reggie was not patient. Finally, ECG gave up on pulling out the plastic with his fingers, went downstairs to the toolbox in the garage, brought up needle-nosed pliers, and pulled at the damn thing with those. The trick worked. The pliers emerged with a bloody, cat-saliva covered piece of industrial plastic. Reggie escaped our clasp and ran under the bed, without even a thank you.

When we finally crawled into bed that night, much later than either of us planned, I knew we'd have no problems. I have a man who is willing to spend a night digging around in a cat's mouth. If ECG can put up with the frustrations of that, he can put up with the frustrations of me for a few days. And so he has, happily.

We left frighteningly early on Tuesday morning, ran into a 4th of July parade in Independence, CA, lost a cell phone in a Yosemite waterfall, and other than that, suffered no difficulties. In fact, we've experienced a thousand climates in one state--California--having traveled it along it's inner mountain ridge from the South to the North. Here, as promised, are a few of the photographic highlights.

That's just a taste of mountainous California. Stay tuned for Oregon later this weekend, and the coast of California next week.