Sad Cake

April 5, 2011

My new year’s resolution was to make 15 recipes that I’ve had sitting around for awhile. This is my third effort, and my first failure. This cake was delicious when my friend Betty brought it in to work, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I didn’t write down the recipe correctly. It seems odd that there would be no baking powder or soda in it. This alone wouldn’t fully account for the fact that the object that emerged from the oven resembles fruit leather more than cake. Here’s what I tried, with my notes in parentheses.

This cake has the texture of fruit leather. The flavor is okay.

Molasses Spice Cake:

2.25 C Flour (I used 1.25 C whole wheat flour, and 1 C white)
1/2 t salt (I skipped this)
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t each: cloves, nutmeg, cardamom
1/2 t ginger
1/4 C molasses (I increased to 1/3 C)
1/2 C honey (I decreased to 1/4 C)
1 t vinegar
1/2 C applesauce
1 C milk

Mix dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl combine the wet ingredients. Fold in the dry ingredients. Bake 25-30 minutes in a 9″ square pan (I used a round pan) at 350 degrees. Use cream cheese or lemon frosting (I omitted frosting)


Ode to April Fool’s Day

April 1, 2011

I’m a dream date for people who love April Fool’s Day. I’ve fallen for at least three pranks today already. (My favorite was the email from my Wisconsin State Assembly rep who said all 34 Democratic Assembly members have decided to go ahead and leave the state too.)

One April Fool’s prank in 1993 actually changed the course of my life. I was a religious studies major, planning to go on to get my PhD and become a professor (I mean, what else is a person gonna do with that degree?). I found religion such a fascinating topic, I could easily imagine spending the rest of my life studying it. I joined the Undergraduate Religious Studies Association (URSA), which published a monthly newsletter.

For April Fool’s Day of my junior year, we made a mock newsletter in which we poked fun at the department, ourselves, and the professors. We were not a spiteful crew, but we had a fun time with phony interviews, make-believe book reviews, and doctored photos. It was all good-natured, so we were pretty shocked when a couple of the professors were outraged. “How dare you make light of my life’s work?” and “Maybe you don’t see the value in this, but I can assure you others do.” That sort of thing.

James Hart, professor of phenomenology--whatever that means...

Their responses were so egotistical that I began to wonder what it does to a person to devote one’s life to an obscure area of study which, in the larger scheme of things, just doesn’t matter that much. Read the rest of this entry »

Nothing to Sneeze at: An Interview with Michael Perry

February 21, 2011

When prepping for this interview with the multi-talented Michael Perry, I wondered if I should focus on the fact that he is one of the Midwest’s most beloved authors or if instead I should emphasize his outstanding songwriting. Perhaps I should dwell on his hefty contributions to fitness and outdoors magazines or inquire about his role as host of Tent Show Radio. Then again, it might be most interesting to ask him about his childhood in a devout Christian family involving more than fifty brothers and sisters (most of those foster siblings).

In the end I couldn’t resist trying to sprinkle a few questions related to each of these topics in my thoroughly enjoyable discussion with the man who lived up to his reputation as a heck of a nice guy. You can learn more about him by visiting his website (a reference to a memorable incident in which he found himself behind a sneezing bovine. I’ve not had the pleasure of such an experience, but he explains that it involves the release of contents under pressure.)

You joke about how your mind can’t stay focused on one thing, but leaps from one topic to the next. Rather than work against this tendency, you’ve made it a hallmark. In your writing and reading, this often buoys your comedic impact. But I’ve noticed something very different in your songs.  The seemingly illogical and unconnected images are often emotionally evocative. For example in “Indiana” the worn out narrator, apparently à propos of nothing, sees fit to mournfully request the head of Edward Hopper. I have no idea why, but it’s beautiful.  Does songwriting require you to think about your skill set as a writer in a totally different way?

First of all, it’s nice of you to call it a skill set. One thing I love about songwriting is that it is a throwback to my first love, which was poetry. It’s a forced economy.

For my prose, I write thousands and thousands of words to get one 800-word riff. Songwriting forces me to work leaner and with more economy. But also, when you throw in music, something happens and the words don’t have to make strict sense. So in that song “Indiana,” what happened was I had been on a two-week book tour alone and I was on my way back. I just wanted to get home. I was coming from Michigan and I had to stop in Chicago and I was thinking, “no problem, I’ll go from Michigan to Illinois and then to Wisconsin.” Then I saw a sign that said, “Welcome to Indiana.”  I had just completely forgotten Indiana!  So anyway, in Truck I write about that Edward Hopper painting Seven AM. It destroys me. It’s just a building, but something about the color and the light…

When I hit Indiana I was hit by what the Portuguese call saudade. It’s hard to describe what that means, but it’s a longing for things irretrievably lost, which I have a lot of. We all do. I long to be in that abandoned building Edward Hopper made. And so this phrase came to me, “Bring me the head of Edward Hopper.” What I’m doing there is first of all hoping that whenever you ask for the head of someone you get people’s attention. But what I really mean to say is that I want his mindset.

Some lyrics are straightforward, like “Alice Mayhew Jackson.” It’s a short story, you layer one verse on another to build it and make the story progress. Others are what I call abstract existential cowboy songs. “Could Be You” is in that category. It’s exciting to build line after line of seeming tangents and create a feeling more than create a story.

I think one thing rural readers appreciate about your writing is that you are writing about your region in a realistic way. Have you ever written from the perspective of an outsider? And if so, did the experience change anything about the way you write about Wisconsin?

I often write as an outsider when I do magazine pieces. For example, one time for Backpacker I climbed Mt. Rainier with two vets returning from the Iraq war. My experience was not theirs. I’m not a vet. I’m not a mountain climber. We were strangers at the start. There is the old cliché that you should write what you know. Obviously I do that a lot in my books. But I also think you should try to write what you don’t know. It makes you pay attention and not take information for granted. Sometimes when I write about firefighting—which I know—I find I have to be really careful not to use terms or information that isn’t understood by the reader. Terms that I just take for granted. But when I’m climbing Mt. Rainier I’m paying attention to every detail, not taking anything for granted.

But in [book] form, I have not written from the perspective of an outsider. I’m not sure what other people’s perspective is of where my career is as a writer, but it’s not at the stage where every idea I pitch gets approved by the publisher. I’ve had five or six book ideas that have been rejected. Read the rest of this entry »

Gov. Walker’s Neighbor Speaks Out

February 14, 2011

The following is an open letter from my good friend and brilliant geographer Sigrid Peterson. Wisconsin needs to retain and encourage genius like hers, because there are plenty of employers in others states who want her. For those who haven’t heard, this is in reference to our governor’s recent announcement that he will call out the national guard if he needs extra enforcement of his plan to bust public sector unions.

Who are you gonna trust, Scott Walker (as shown smarmily above) or...

Dear Neighbor:  On the Multiplier Effects of a Public Sector Job

Dear Governor Walker,

I doubt you remember me. In fact, we’ve never formally met, but you and I grew up not half a block away from each other in the small town of Delavan, Wisconsin.  You were in my sister Katie’s high school class, though perhaps you didn’t know her then (indeed, she was a brainy punk rocker, while you were a mullet-haired jock).  Six years your junior, I have only fuzzy memories of you—of riding my bike around the corner, seeing one of the “older boys” in the neighborhood walk out of his house on West Wisconsin Street, and hearing my sister say, “Hey, there’s Scott Walker.”

...this hardworking woman (Sigrid) helping me pull weeds on a hot summer's day?

Our limited acquaintance notwithstanding, within the past four days I fear I’ve gotten to know you fairly well, or well enough.  So perhaps it’s time I introduce myself.  My name is Sigrid Peterson.  I’m your former neighbor from Delavan, and I’m a public sector worker in Wisconsin.

If it isn’t obvious, I’m writing to ask you, your administration, and your Republican friends in the legislature to put a swift stop to your proposed “Budget Repair” bill, along with its crude and unapologetic assault on fifty years of rights and benefits granted to Wisconsin’s public sector employees.  Your measure is nothing short of devastating—stripping most (in some cases, all) of our collective bargaining rights, incapacitating any future resources of our unions, and further straining the livability and reach of our compensation with steep increases in employee contributions to health care and pensions.

And you do this with nothing but unsubstantiated excuses that this is the “only alternative.” And you do this with no effort (none) to meet with workers since you took office.  Forgive me, but this makes you no more forthright or articulate than a tongue-tied and cowardly teenager breaking up with his girlfriend/boyfriend via text message.  Does this mean you’ll bring back your mullet, too?

If I’m irreverent, Governor Walker, I assure you it’s in service to things greater than concern over my job, alone.  I write this out of respect for my late father, too—your old neighbor, a lifelong Wisconsinite, and a public municipal employee.  I also write this out of pride in the progressive legacy of my home state, a legacy you and your colleagues delight in dismantling.

My dad, Lyle (raised in Richland Center, WI), was living proof that Read the rest of this entry »

Creme de la Maple

February 6, 2011

Last night I made the second dish out of fifteen that I resolved to try in 2011.  Maple Creme Caramel was the recipe and I thought it came out nicely. I thought it was a little too sweet for my taste, and did not have as much of a maple flavor as I would have liked, but it’s kind of hard to go wrong when eating cream and maple syrup. One thing I might try if I did it again is to use straight up maple syrup instead of caramel, and then reduce the volume of the maple syrup in the custard. If anyone has any idea if that would turn out well, please let me know. Below is the recipe, and I regret I can’t provide the source It was something I clipped out of something some long time ago. My comments are in parentheses.

Maple Creme Caramel –serves 4

The Caramel
1 C. sugar
1/2 C. water

The Custard
1/2 C. pure maple syrup
3 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1-1/2 C. whipping cream
1/2 C. whole milk (If you are splurging by making this dish, you may as well splurge a little more for the organic milk and eggs. Not only is it a good deal for our home planet, but these are two items that are distinctly more flavorful if they are produced organically.) Read the rest of this entry »

A Story of Drive

February 4, 2011

My most recent short story, “Drive,” has just been published by Inwood Indiana Press. (You’ll need to scroll down to just below the first poem to see it–it will also be available later in the year as part of a paperback anthology.) This is the story of two single parents, each of which has a son determined to make something of himself. When one makes a terrible choice, both families find themselves navigating each others’ flaws, virtues, and desires.

The Railroad Rank and File Build a Base

January 23, 2011


A cartoon from the early part of the 20th century still expresses many workers' frustration when unions fail to cooperate.

Part Two of a Special Series on Railroad Workers

Throughout 2005 contract negotiations, union rail workers faced concerted attack by an industry that wanted to slash the workforce to dangerous levels, decimate health care, and weaken the method of compensation for on-the-job injury. While the industry was united in the National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC), the thirteen different craft unions representing the workforce operated independently at best, and antagonistically at worst.  The United Transportation Union (UTU) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), the largest of these unions, were also the ones that clashed most often—and with the worst outcomes for its members.

Even though the members of the BLET (which represents most engineers and some conductors) worked right alongside the members of the UTU (which represents most conductors, some engineers and members of some other crafts), the leadership of the two unions often sought to undermine each other. For example, the industry was able to implement remote control technology on very favorable terms that undercut working conditions. Many railroaders believe that if the unions had stood united, this technology could have been prevented or at least have mitigated the impact on worker safety and job security.

In the past, efforts had been made to stop the feuding and actually unite the two unions, most recently in 1998 and 2000. Read the rest of this entry »

Six Good Things

January 9, 2011

Some days I take to making lists. Here are six random things that will make me like you quite well even if I barely know you.

1. If someone says something racist, you speak against what they said.

2. If I’m talking to you and your cell phone rings, you turn off the ringer without looking to see who is calling.

3. You pick up a stranded motorist, especially one that seems down on his/her luck.

4. When an unpopular person walks in the room, you walk up to him/her with a smile and say “Hi, good to see you!”

5. When the unpopular person leaves the room, you still say, “It was good to see him/her.”

6. You say, “I don’t know” if, in fact, you don’t know.

Thanks to the nice people in the world who have inspired this list!


January 8, 2011

For my new year’s resolution, I decided to make 15 recipes that I have collected over the years, but never got around to trying. I let my readers pick which 15 I should try. Vegan sausage just barely made the cut, but not before being derided by a few folks on my facebook page. I had actually been wanting to try this recipe for awhile, so it launched my new year’s effort. I was quite happy with the results and I imagine I will add this to my somewhat regular repertoire.

The recipe (from Recipe Binder on facebook):
Prep time: 1 hour, cooking time 10 minutes.
1/2 C cooked pinto beans, rinsed and drained and mashed
1 C. cold vegetable broth
1 Tbl. olive oil
2 Tbl. soy sauce
2 cloves minced garlic
1.25 C wheat gluten
1/4 C nutritional yeast
1.5 tsp crushed fennel seed
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp sweet paprika
1 tsp dried oregano
Optional: sage, apple, or liquid smoke

Method Read the rest of this entry »

You Can’t Get Manure from Sacred Cows

January 4, 2011

Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind
Gene Logsdon
Chelsea Green Press

When Katie Couric televised her own colonoscopy to encourage early detection of colon cancer, it worked. Suddenly, people in late middle age found themselves having to answer to their children and friends as to the state of their bowels. The incidence of colonoscopies increased as death rates for the cancer decreased. Perhaps we need some celebrities to take up the case for the product of colons: manure. In the circles I run in, Gene Logsdon passes for a celebrity, but maybe we could get some extra lift if we recruited Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga. They might appeal to a different sort of audience than a curmudgeonly old farmer from Ohio.

With Logsdon, you don’t get a lot of sentimental prose about the uplifting feeling of holding sweet-smelling fully composted manure in your palm. No, he gets right down to business. He tells you where to get your animals to dump, how you handle a pitchfork, and for that matter the right kind of pitchfork to use. He doesn’t skip past the stage where the manure stinks to high heaven, he just helps you get through it.

By talking about pitchforks, I’ve already lost the policy wonks. They will tell us that the only way we can manage manure to save humanity is to build giant anaerobic digesters that will harvest the methane from the septic lagoons of factory farms. Logsdon argues convincingly and at times mockingly otherwise, pointing out that such farms are not only an abomination from many moral and environmental perspectives, but that in the long run they are not economically viable.

One of his favorite hobbies is attacking conventional wisdom as espoused by the talking heads. If agri-business considers something essential, he’s bound to show how it’s really an unsustainable fad. However, refuting the arguments of agribusiness is just a side track, the main line of the book is reserved for explaining how he believes manure management does work. He is confident that eventually everyone else will figure out what doesn’t work. Read the rest of this entry »