30 May 2014

Fake cake

Growing up, the only kind of cake in my home was homemade cake, made completely from scratch, as we say.  Cake mixes were something very exotic, very American to our immigrant eyes, and my mother never bought them.  My sisters and I were avid bakers as children, and we wished we could make a 'box cake' once in a while, like those brightly colorful confetti cakes served at our friends' birthday parties or those teeth-chatteringly sweet cupcakes that quickly sold out at the school bake sales.  I suppose we were a little like the son of one of my adult students who frequently complained to his mother that there was never anything good to eat in the pantry because all they had there were INGREDIENTS.  My sisters and I quickly learned though that our pantry ingredients made much better cakes than those composed out of boxes containing industrial blends of odd-sounding ingredients, flavorings, and colors.

When I got married years later, the sad truth is that my wedding cake was a box cake, made by a local woman in my small hometown community.  We had had to outsource the making of the wedding cake because my family was already making all of the other wedding food and we simply didn't have the time or experience with making wedding cakes.  I remember that the cake was a spice cake, in three tiers, decorated simply with white frosting and fresh pink flowers. The cake tasted fine, but it was not at all in the same league as the cake that a Norwegian family friend generously made as a contribution to our sweets table, full of luscious, light cream.  I only managed to get a small bite, but to me, that was a real cake!

Recently, I attended a wedding where I noticed that the wedding cake looked very much like mine had 20 years earlier, with its simple design: white frosting, several tiers, and fresh flowers.  After dinner, the bride and groom did the customary cake cutting and tasting, and then the wedding party and guests moved on to the dance floor.  A little while later I wondered why the rest of the cake hadn't been cut up and served, yet guests were appearing with pieces of cake on plates.  I made some joke about the fake wedding cake that turned out not to be a joke at all.  That beautifully simple multi-tiered cake was indeed a fake cake.  The only cake there was the small slice at the bottom, for the cake cutting, and the top tier, destined for the newlyweds' freezer.  The middle and bottom were frosted something--cardboard, styrofoam?  The real cakes were two sheet cakes being served up in the other room.  I learned later that this is one way that wedding cake is done these days; it's a much more economical way to serve wedding cake, particularly when the guest lists are large, and often allows a better quality cake to served.  Who knew!?

And, where's the sociology in all of this talk about having cake and eating it too?  It's a bit trite, but it's like the cakes in the French pastry shop vitrines that my sons and I were choosing between for our Sunday afternoon coffees last year: the prettiest ones were rarely the most satisfying or best tasting ones.  It's not just the presentation, but the ingredients that matter.  This is related to a core lesson in the Social inequality course that I am revising right now for this fall: we should be careful when forming impressions of others. It's easy to stereotype based on people's visible social markers, like their age, gender, social class position, or their immigrant status.  It's harder, but often ultimately more revealing, when we delve a little deeper, to see what's really there, influencing people's circumstances, choices, and opportunities.

21 May 2014

In the boat

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown (2013) is currently getting a great deal of attention in the Pacific NW.  The book was mentioned in the local Seattle paper before the opening of boating season this spring, a local university where I teach has just selected it as its common book for next year's incoming freshmen (see http://www.onlinefast.org/wwutoday/news/the-boys-in-the-boat-selected-as-western-reads-book-for-2014-15 ), and not too many months ago, I caught a mention of the book on a Facebook post by a brother-in-law who was a Husky varsity crew alumnus himself.  Brown frames the story around the life of a young man of very modest means who goes off to the University of Washington in the early 1930's to study engineering and becomes a member of the collegiate rowing team.  The broader story is about the importance of teamwork and perseverance and how underdogs do sometimes win (a favorite American theme).  Along the way, we learn about the sport of rowing and a little bit about the craftsmanship of wooden boatbuilding, and while the writing is a bit heavy on hyperbole and foreshadowing (the Nazi specter looms large as do impending dust storms, cold spells, and heat waves), Brown shapes and paces the story well, enhancing it with details of the broader socioeconomic and political context.  For me, the best part though is the endnotes which are offered in an abridged version in the book and more completely online.  Brown's transparency is refreshing and satisfying as he explains the sources of his accounts and statements and even how he contrived some of the obviously undocumented quotes.  Some might quibble that he was brazenly filling in too many gaps but I would say he was telling a story based upon his interpretation of the sources available to him (and he wasn't lazy in digging for sources).

It is the sources that Brown had available to him that really caught my eye.  The interviews, and especially the journal and logbook entries, printed photos, and personal handwritten letters that the author relied upon made me realize how increasingly rare those latter archival sources are, and make me wonder how our different modes of recording the ephemeral events of our lives today will color future stories and accounts of lives lived, victories won, or events experienced.  For example, my children have never written the kinds of letters or had penpals like I did, or experienced the regular bliss of receiving a letter in the mailbox (many of my letter-writing Finnish cousins and penpals, and my Swedish and Danish ones,are still part of my life, if in smaller ways than when I was younger).  They have never waited for photo prints to be made or thumbed through packets of them fresh from the photo processing shop.  They do not have boxes of old letters, in the handwriting of grandparents, younger siblings, from a romantic partner, or half-filled old grade school diaries, piles of printed photographs--loose and in albums.  I'm not imagining that any of those in the boxes in my attic and the files in my office will ever be of value to anyone except me and I am sure most will likely end up being thrown out someday.  I am grateful though that my spouse's grandfather's precious letters home during World War II were lovingly saved by his wife and later collected and archived by his eldest daughter so that we can all have a small understanding and the physical touch of how the war was experienced by a family member and how it likely colored his life.  Similarly, if those UW crew men in Brown's book hadn't kept journals and written letters in the first place, and if their sisters, girlfriends, grown children hadn't saved these, and if the logbook of the crew coach hadn't survived, we would not have the rich story that Brown tells us.  I wonder how authors will fashion and tell the stories that my kids and their kids will read years from now.  What will the documented sources of these stories look like and feel like?

Saving everything, especially today when many of us have so much, threatens to overwhelm us in clutter and garbage.  It is satisfying to reduce, to de-clutter, to clean out, but some of the 'documentation' that reminds me of the story of my life and of my world I just won't part with; I'll leave that decision to my descendants! They'll have to decide if my huge email inbox, my yearly wall calendars, my tattered photo albums, or even the posts of this little journal-y blog are archive-worthy.  Others are already making similar decisions about loved ones' materials on social media sites and on laptop hard drives.  In the meantime, I will record here, for posterity or for the garbage can, that my family had a magnificent in-the-boat experience once too, last year, when our German cousins arranged for us to take a one-day, 32 km paddling trip together down the Ardèche river in southern France.  While our less than harmonious paddling and some mild rapids resulted in a few out-of-the-boat instances and there was no gold medal at the end of our trip, the eye-catching nudist beach along the way, the very mad rush among hundreds(!) of other canoeists to make it to the endpoint in time for the last bus, and the eventual reward of a bottle of French champagne all made this an epic experience in our lives.  And I'm very glad I saved some documentation of it.

01 May 2014

Longhand reading

Since my family's return to Seattle five months ago, we've noticed all kinds of differences and similarities between our brief French life and our American one.  (See The big (and) easy, 11 Dec. 2013, for some of those initial discoveries.)  More recently, I've noticed how tethered I've become to my smart devices, and how that has affected my concentration and memory.  Because I'm now in the same time zone as my students and colleagues, their emails bombard my various inboxes in real time all day long.  I am jumpier and reactive and spend little time reflecting.  By the next day, if I haven't taken notes about what I did or with whom, I forget some of the more mundane interactions and transactions of the previous days.  Similar effects are now being documented by the scientific community, such as the one about note taking.  UCLA psychologists have found that students who take notes longhand have much better retention and more sophisticated understanding of what they are learning than those that take notes onto their laptops or tablets. The latter mode tends to discourage students from engaging actively with the ideas but promotes instead the tendency to just transcribe word-for-word what is being presented.  (See Barbash, Fred. April 28, 2014. "Why students using laptops learn less in class even when they really are taking notes" Morning Mix. The Washington Post.)

For me, the more laborious, tactile, longhand approach also applies to reading.  In France, I read a lot of books, magazines, newspapers, usually in print, in French, English, Finnish.  Aix-en-Provence is a bookish town, and we were surrounded by bookstores, even a well-stocked English-language one. We bought books in London, in Helsinki, and occasionally, supplemented with orders to Amazon.uk.   A few times during our French sojourn, I used my ipad and the Barnes and Noble nook store to order and read some books for an Anglophone book group I had joined and during our final months in France when I did not want to add any more books to the numbers of boxes we were shipping back.  It is those books that I read electronically that I can scarcely remember.  For example, this past fall I read two such books on the ipad that I remember finding riveting and sociologically relevant but that I did not remember to add to my blog's book list.  I recently found the books again while idly tapping on my device and now I have had to skim them in order to refresh my memory. I believe my forgetfulness is partly due to the lack of my physical engagement with either book.  I saw the covers perhaps once, when I opened the books electronically initially, but the physical books were never lying around on my bedside table or on a chair so I do not have a very strong visual memory of them.  And with e-books, flipping pages and re-reading a passage or section, or skimming is awkward so I don't engage much in these ways.  It's no wonder Appassionata by Hoffman and Ousby's Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-44 both slipped out of my mind entirely: I simply had not had a 'longhand' reading experience with them.  Touching the physical book DOES matter to me, sometimes, however quaint this sounds.  (Mireille Silcoff writes about this quaintness amid the death and fetishization of books in this past weekend's New York Times Magazine. The online article is titled and dated: "On Their Death Bed, Physical Books Have Finally Become Sexy." Riff column, Apr. 25, 2014.  The picture on this post shows my color-coordinated but unsexy bookshelf of some of my English language reading over the past few years, and a small piece of the Berlin Wall that I brought home in 1990.)  I certainly read work documents, student work, and journal articles online regularly, but it seems that depending upon what I'm reading, the tangible physical experience may matter.  An academic journal article doesn't come with a great deal of visual 'personality' so reading it online doesn't change my experience much, but reading a book, a popular magazine, and even a newspaper is a much more colorful and lively experience when it's in my hand and I can feel the pages.  If that makes me fusty, then I embrace that characteristic.  Now my challenge is to keep finding those physical books and print media: one unfortunate discovery since my return to Seattle is that the local shopping center no longer has a single bookstore!