18 December 2011

Vassar and Vampires

There have been a lot of books with a glancing reference to Vassar. Vassar has a name -- a reputation -- that conjures up many conflicting images: the over-indulged snobby rich girl, the sophisticated lady, the frigid virgin, the butch lesbian, the slut, the eccentric but resourceful aunt, the hippie activist, the super-smart intellectual, the clueless blonde debutante, ...; the list goes on. Vassar's campus, too, is a showcase. It is an arboretum, literally. Each graduating class has either planted or chosen a tree as its class tree and today, there are about 230 different species of trees at Vassar. It has also been in the vanguard of architectural diversity. Many people deplore the Emma Hartman Noyes House, one of the ten residential halls at Vassar (not counting the Terrace Apartments and Town Houses and South Commons (which did not exist as student housing when I was enrolled)).

Designed by Eero Saarinen and built in 1958, it is actually our newest dormitory building, an airy steel, glass and concrete structure amongst rather traditional European brick housing, and it had been much maligned in my time.  Some students thought it ugly.  Some called it "Annoys."  The interior was more the butt of disparagement than the outside, not least was the colors (or lack thereof) and specially designed furniture.  Inside, the walls separating rooms were thin and the floors were pre-fabricated poured concrete.  As one can imagine, the hallways curved.  Even though there was carpeting in parts of the building, like the hallways, sound bounced around a lot.  (Thus, some called it "Noyes-y.")  It was actually a pretty interesting building, inside and out, although I am not an architectural critic.

The entire Vassar campus had undergone major beautification and general updating of the facilities.  When I visited in 2004, it was gorgeous, probably what it had looked like nearly forty years previously.  But, I don't recall anyone saying there's now a fountain nor do I believe there was a statue of Emma Hartman Noyes (Vassar Class of 1880) for whom the building was named.  Yet, here is Jennifer Rardin, a native of Illinois and graduate of Eastern Illinois University, whose relationship to Vassar I have yet to discover, in the first book of her Jaz Parks paranormal series, describing a fight between two vampires among the water lilies in the fountain pool in the "court" of Vassar's Noyes House in such details that I almost thought I had missed hearing about the communal lounge area being made into a courtyard and the "pit" (the sunken seating area in the middle of the communal area) had been converted and filled with water.  Rardin must have suffered from or capitalized on the same rarefied ideas that many have about Vassar.  I guess the Vassar legends live on, but I hope no starry-eyed high school senior will be visiting Vassar expecting a fountain in the middle of his dormitory (but then, again, we hope there aren't vampires milling about looking for one, either).

14 December 2011

Unifying in the Middle

WBEZ, Chicago's National Public Radio affiliate, has been airing a series on the Midwest region's economy which included today's on the classic prisoner's dilemma. Unless you trust the others explicitly not to cave, you need to save yourself and thus, fall into the lose-lose situation.

This follows on the heels of the closest thing to Dixon and environs' own One Region One Book, begun by Sauk Valley News's Editorial Board, on the advice of Dixon Mayor Jim Burke, who later wrote an open letter to the mayor of Indianapolis after an open invitation for Illinois businesses to relocate appeared in the Chicago Tribune (mentioned in the WBEZ piece).

I heard author Richard Longworth speak at a RSM McGladrey summit for manufacturers.  When I had described to someone Longworth's rhetorical question: why do Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan all need to strive to have a powerhouse law school, agricultural school, engineering school, business school, medical school and undergraduate programs, the response came immediately -- there's a lot of pride and loyalty involved. 

That is not too difficult to understand, as we sit by and watch the drama that is the Eurozone.  Europeans had such hopes for unity as Europe, sure that a common currency would do the trick.  Yet, they are still proud to be Greek or Italian or Spanish or French or German, not European.  Someone actually from Northern Ireland recognizes the United Kingdom and its sovereignty over the British pound, but insists there are four separate nations within that kingdom, each entitled to its own World Cup football team.  Heck, here in the United States of America, we not only have a common currency, but a common language (mostly) and a war -- "commonly" called "Civil War" or "The War Between the States" to show us (and the rest of the world) the way and yet, that unity is fragile, as picayune or as significant as a Pennsylvanian pointing out that Pennsylvania is not a state but a commonwealth that at the moment has agreed to be part of the USA.

Sadly, cooperation is but a stone's throw away from compromise, a word and concept so besmirched that a lose-lose situation becomes indistinguishable from "winner take all." 

I might mention that Pride is one of the seven deadly sins.  As for loyalty, who says that loyalty can't be expanded?  Surely, we can somehow find unity in the middle?

03 December 2011

Stories Most Fowl


When This American Life on Chicago's WBEZ (NPR) played a show containing segments or "acts" about an entire family who for years around Thanksgiving time tiptoed around a hand puppet duck by calling the main attraction at the holiday meal a "fish," and a turkey farm in which a girl, her sister and her father spent frantic minutes trying to save the family's livelihood from drowning themselves by raising their heads and opening their mouths to swallow the deluge of rain pouring down, I bet no one realized that some fourteen or fifteen years later, they would still be finding -- probably with little difficulty -- poultry stories to tell.  This year, as I listened to "Poultry Slam 2011" on the way from Chicago to Dixon (while everyone in a 40-mile radius of Downtown Dixon was enjoying its Christmas Walk), I could picture items we have sold at Books on First which made perfect complements to the acts.

For Act One, "Witness for the Barbecue-tion," I thought about Melissa & Doug's Tic-Tac-Toe game, wonderful for children, adults and chickens.  Sure, a tree was killed, but unlike paper, the game is re-usable and it sure beats having to find a pen or pencil.  Besides, I have never seen a chicken hold a pencil properly.
For Act Two, about a wild turkey terrorizing a Martha Vineyard neighborhood, I thought of all kinds of books, but the one that stuck is not about a turkey, but about a giant chicken.  A science experiment gone a little wild, Henrietta was just trying to play with the neighborhood kids, just like Tom Turkey who looked so cute playing hide-n-seek with the deliveryman who was scared "sh-tless" of the giant fowl.  Daniel Pinkwater's The Hoboken Chicken Emergency is a 33-year old classic.

I have to say, though, I don't understand the average person's skepticism about terrorizing turkeys.  What makes them so lovable that it's impossible to imagine them to be mean or nasty?  I was terrorized by one of our male turkeys who kept me from exiting my car after I arrived home from Chicago, jumped on my thigh and made me stave it off with a long walking staff that someone had made and presented to Larry.  Once, the cleaning lady called Larry from her car and apologized for not being able to go into the house to work, because the tom wouldn't let her out of her car.  Larry would not believe me until he saw the tom jump me.  When he came to scold the turkey, the tom started chasing him.  Even then, Larry hated to part with the turkey.  Normally, when a rooster attacked someone, especially a child, it went into the pot immediately for stock.  Our tom was way too old and big for that noble end; it was eventually given away to someone who either thought he could handle this turkey or did not believe it could be a bully.

For Act Three, "Latin Liver," about a natural way to raise geese with enormous livers for producing foie gras, I naturally thought of Mark Caro's The Foie Gras Wars, which begs the question: why are animal rights activist so focused on a slightly greater than 0% minority in the abused food animal world when there are so many other food animals being inhumanely bred, raised and slaughtered -- like those hogs in the confine just a mile from where we live.  Producers in Caro's book contend that the process of gavage, or force feeding, geese to grow their livers to massive proportions might look abusive, but really, the geese don't mind.

And then, there are the sharks who are left to fend for themselves after their fins are cut off for shark fin soup.  I love a well-made Chinese shark fin soup, but those horror stories of wildlife abuse have certainly led to a dearth of that offering in restaurants and at banquets.  I love liver made right, too.  In Paris, we bought a couple of jars of duck liver from a woman who had her own duck farm and sold the resulting foodstuffs out of a windowless little shop on the Ile de la citè.  It was fantastic (and probably not healthy for my liver), so I might imagine how heavenly true foie gras would be.