The Curdistanis Attend the Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival

Dear Readers (if indeed any remain),

So, we haven't posted a word since Inauguration Day, you say. What kind of a blog is this, you ask.

Well, readers, it's a blog that is deeply affected by the academic calendar and something called the "spring semester," followed by something called the "interim term," which entails teaching a semester's worth of material in three weeks.

Now, however, I have been jarred out of blogging complacency by two events. 1) The interim term ended yesterday, and I am done teaching for the year. 2) Today, I have seen truly stupendous, wondrous sites of cheese. How could I NOT blog about this? Our blog is named Curdistan, for the Flying Spaghetti Monster's sake.

And so, today, after Indian brunch in Appleton (and the discovery of a small Indian grocery store-YES!), we attended The Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival in Little Chute, Wisconsin. Despite the soggy weather, a good time was had by all.

Cheese curds? Present. Squeaky. Check.

Cheese carving? We saw talented folk carving Mr. Potato head, a football, a cow, the Brewers' logo, and, most amazing of all, a detailed replica of Miller Park out of good 'ol, gleaming yellow Wisconsin cheddar. Check.

A giant buffet of cheese to sample? Check. (At one point, someone asked members of our party "where we got the cheese," which is kind of hysterical).

Rides and other carnival fare? Check. (I mean, what better thing to do, after eating a bunch of cheese, than to go on RIDES?)

Cheese curd eating contest? Check.

What better way to usher in the summer in Wisconsin than a cheese festival? (Even if the current temperature is, yes, 48 degrees).


"In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun"....

I never wrote about the day we heard Barack Obama speak. He wasn't President Obama yet (President Obama!), but it was a winter day so much like this one, last February, before the Wisconsin primary. We heard Obama at a small-ish "town hall" gathering in Waukesha, a suburb of Milwaukee. Obama actually came to Oshkosh later that week. But I had a meeting I couldn't skip for the speech, so on February 13, down to Waukesha we drove. We stood in the cold, talking to a woman who had brought her husband-- a Republican-- who was more worried about reactions to his Chicago Bears hat than about his party affiliation. We listened as Obama gave his stump speech-- which I think I practically had memorized after watching the campaign on tv for weeks-- and as he thoughtfully answered questions from the audience. We remained impressed. We were happy.

Above are two pictures from that day-- one of our gorgeous drive back home through snowy fields, the other of then-Senator Obama himself. I've been thinking about photography and history-- and the seams where personal memory and national memory meet-- as I watched the inauguration events this week. At the town hall, I was seated a few rows back-- maybe 50 feet from Obama-- and I probably raised my camera to take a picture about 10 times as he spoke. It felt invasive. It felt a bit rude. As many theorists have noted, there is a kind of violence in "fixing" someone in the camera's gaze. And yet, it was hard NOT to take a picture-- this was my only chance. And so, above, I have the photographic proof that I Was There, for one tiny stop of the 2008 campaign.

I'm not alone. Every television image of Obama working a rope line, or shaking hands after an inaugural celebration, shows people raising their cameras and cell phones high above the crowd, clicking away. Even Malia Obama has been busy recording what she sees, fixing things in time.

Photographs remind us where we are, where we've been. I have missed New York and DC a bit this week. I've thought of all of the people I knew there, the places I have stood there. In the online edition of the times, I looked at an image of the Columbia campus in the snow, students gathered on the steps, watching the oath. On flickr, there was a picture of our old neighborhood in Washington Heights.

It's sunset here in Oshkosh, on a day that was crisp and cold-- very similar temperatures to what was reported for DC, except that here, this weather feels good and like a bit of a thaw to me. I watched the ceremonies with a mix of emotion and a critical gaze. But it was hard to remain aloof when I heard the strains of "Air and Simple Gifts"--because that folk melody reminded me of what it was like to be a teenager, listening to "Appalachian Spring," thinking of ideas that I thought were new and simple and grand (they are old things, really, and not simple or necessarily grand). It was hard to be cynical about the inaugural address, even while I mentally tried to "unpack" it, hard not to be moved by "our patchwork heritage," by the return of science, by the idea that now perhaps our government at least will not torture, will not kill so much as it does. It was hard not to think of my grandparents, those I knew and those I did not meet, and all of the others before them... the ones who crossed oceans, as Obama said today, or, in Tony Kushner's phrasing, "the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania," the woman "who carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat....You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not anymore exist."

I cried hearing Elizabeth Alexander's luminous "praise song for the day." In my head, I try to balance "Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce..." with "A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

But most of all, I was moved by the imagery of winter: by the evocation of Washington in winter at the end of President Obama's speech, by the "sharp sparkle" in Alexander's poem. This second winter in Wisconsin I have tried to embrace the winter, to take in the cold, and to remind myself that it is both beautiful and finite. On campus today, surrounded by snow, I had to take a picture.... to mark the day.... of my own memory-object in the sparkling snow. I don't have any illusions that the country is suddenly ok, that any president can meet emotions and expectations as grandiose as those we place on this one. Still, I hope, mingling my memories of last February's cold drive with the cold brisk air I inhaled today, that we can ....begin.

Or, as Naomi Shihab Nye writes: "it's late, but everything comes next."


Pizza by the Slice

To a New Yorker, the phrase "by the slice" after "pizza" is entirely redundant. It's not only the standard unit of sale, it's a well-documented economic indicator of when the price of a token is about to go up. Wisconsin however has barely heard of the concept.

There are three ways to get a pie in Oshkosh. The first is buying frozen from the supermarket. The selection at even the small supermarkets is larger than the entire freezer section at a NYC market. Then there take-and-bake stores, both chains and local. I guess this offers the illusion that it's healthier, since you apply your own home-made heat. Finally, there are a ton of pizzerias for eat-in and delivery, our favorite of which is Glass Nickel. Red's makes a good thin crust. But really, with as much pizza as people eat up here, you would think there would be a few places that really serve up a perfect pie. I've found nothing yet that matches the best pies from Manhattan and Brooklyn. And the offerings here are mostly deep-dish style; nothing really looks like a New York pie.

But in the last month or two something new has come to Oshkosh -- pizza by the slice! Polito's was opened by an Italian guy from New York, and the slice looks and tastes like what you would expect: crispy crust, good sauce and the right shape and size! (There was already one chain in town that serves by the slice, but it's a fast-food style rectangle and it sucks.) It's still not perfect but it's the best we've found.

It helps to pretend they don't actually offer a mac-and-cheese slice.

How has this place managed to make a dent in the mindshare of hungry Wisconsinites? By challenging their competitive-eating manhood! They offer a 28lb "monster pizza" for $50, and if you and a buddy finish it an hour you win $500! The local newspaper (a crappy Gannet rag which admittedly has not much else to cover) ran a continuing feature on the various attempts to win the prize, all of which ended in failure. Until last week, when the prize was finally won by a pair of Army soldiers, who were competing against their fellow Marines and Navy men. USA!

The pie normally has pepperoni and sausage, but "vegetarians call for special instructions". Hmm...


Autumn Retrospective

Naturally, now that snow has already fallen and the autumn colors are long gone, I'm finally getting around to posting some foliage pictures. For the second year in a row, I've taken some lovely pictures of the autumn leaves here, and, for the second year in a row, the fall semester has been so jam-packed (packed with jam? what kind of jam? Grape? Strawberry?) that I had no time to blog or post them when they were actually timely.

Nonetheless, here they are-- shots of yellow and gold and brown hues from October and November. The first few images below are from Election Day, which was a strangely warm Indian Summer sunny day, which I think changed the light on the trees a bit. The final image is also from that week-- it's not of Oshkosh, but of Grant Park in Chicago, where the trees had turned an awesome yellow just a few days before Obama's acceptance speech). It's funny looking at the leaves in retrospective, now that the landscape has changed over to assorted grays and whites.


Santa Claus Has Already Come To Town

Oshkosh kicked off its holiday festivities a couple weeks ago with a big gathering in Opera House Square. There was caroling, kid games, and food from some local restaurants (including my favorite new downtown cafe). Apparently this was the biggest party going on in the world that night, because Santa chose to stop by our town to meet the kids! Unfortunately I had only my crappy cellphone camera to document the scene. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the party, despite it being one of the first really cold days this year.

The next day Jodi and I stopped at the Fox Valley Mall in Appleton for some shopping. It's a fine mall if you need something that's there, but not really worth a trip unless you're in the area. But I guess Santa had a layover before heading back to the North Pole, because there he was again! I hate to say it, but he looked a little bored until a kid came by to chat a few minutes later. He must have been doing some market research, but he should really get back to the office to oversee production. No wonder there still aren't enough Wii's.


I'm Dreaming of a White Thanksgiving

Today was our second Thanksgiving in Wisconsin, and also the second Thanksgiving for which there is snow on the ground. On Monday morning, we woke up to this:

Yup, that would be 4.5 inches of snow, the first real snow of the year. I must say, the true sign that we have lived in WI for some time is how I was only briefly moved by how beautiful the snow was-- I just kept thinking, "here are the four months of the year when I try to avoid re-spraining my ankle on the ice." Still, the town and campus did look aesthetically pleasing in the snow, and I'm finding that temperatures in the 30s really don't feel that cold anymore. I enjoyed inhaling the crisp snow smell while I walked across campus.

We are having a very quiet Thanksgiving weekend, mostly cleaning, grading, and getting some much needed rest. This morning I ate a bagel with lox (for nostalgic purposes) while watching the Thanksgiving Day parade and missing New York a bit. I never actually went to the parade but did go the night before the parade to see the balloons being blown up, which is an awesome experience. The parade is sheer commercialism and kitsch but I'm a total sucker for it (although I am concerned about the current relaunch of the Muppets-- I'm excited to see them getting some exposure but thought the cheesy Christmas song was so earnest that it desecrated the long history of Muppet irreverence).

This afternoon we went to some friends nearby for The Meal, and their table looked very fine indeed:

After the main meal and before dessert, we all went for a walk in the local park, which is still snow-covered. The annual winter light display throughout the park was already set up and we wandered around looking at the lights and throwing snow balls (always an excellent thing). At the top of this post is my favorite image: a man ice-fishing, in lights, right beside the lake where people will soon be ice fishing. [Note: the lake is not yet frozen. The top of the Fox River IS frozen, but it's not "safe" for ice-fishing the way the lake eventually will be]. A good, frozen time was had by all. We also ran into some friends who live in the same part of town and their extremely adorable daughter.

As we walked, we all talked about how Wisconsinites really have all of these structures in place to make the winter fun and more bearable; some people embrace the winter whereas some just muddle (or drink) their way through it, but there is really quite a lot to do here even once it gets bloody cold out.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and to all a good night.


Chicago Hope

At the end of October we spent a long weekend in Chicago; while Jodi attended a conference, I got my own work done in the beautiful public library. I like to see the main library buildings of the cities I visit, and this is the first time I had made it to Chicago's, although I didn't take the time to really tour it properly. But check out this scene, which shows only a small portion of the public computers they have available! And look how packed they are -- anyone who thinks libraries are still just places to find a book hasn't been to one for a while.

The reason I was working at the library rather than the very swanky hotel hosting Jodi's conference is that they charged $60 for Jodi's wi-fi and I didn't feel paying again for my own laptop. But I'll say one things for fancy hotels -- if they're really good, they manage to integrate modern amenities into their "classy" decor. Witness the Badgers above on a pair of beautiful flat screens. The best thing about the hotel is that it was literally right next to the park where the city was preparing for Obama's victory speech the following night. Heidi blogged about our tour of the scene (and what she got to see the following night!). We would have stayed the extra night, but we booked it well in advance and wanted to make sure we got home in time to vote. This is before we heard about early voting. D'oh!


Election Day is for Luzers

Today we voted!

Wisconsin is one of the 31 states where you don't need an excuse to vote early. In New York you still do, and "I don't like waiting in long lines" doesn't count. We figured that this way we can vote on our own schedule, do whatever we like on election day (get-out-the-vote, perhaps...) and encourage high turnout by reducing those lines.

Today we found basically no lines (about 1 minute wait for the ballot request form, and another minute for the ballot itself) but there was a steady stream of people going into and out of the polling place. And because Wisconsin is a swing state, our votes actually matter!

Another local voter advantage: I didn't commit a crime by taking that photo! Apparently cameras are prohibited in the voting booth in Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and possibly elsewhere. In Colorado, the Secretary of State says
There is no state statute that prohibits videoing or photographing one's ballot. However, it is illegal for one to then disclose how one has voted.
WTF? Anyway, since felons are prohibited from voting in most states, I'm glad I didn't just become one. Take this, Colorado!


Wherein I Meet the Sausages

We've posted previously about the sausage race at Miller Park, and about PETA's quixotic crusade to get them to include a sixth contestant. Well today the sausages came to Oshkosh to appear at the homecoming game, and I got my picture taken with them. Actually only Stosh Jonjak (Polish sausage), Cinco (chorizo) and Brett Wurst (duh) were there; maybe Guido (Italian) and Frankie Furter had another engagement.

I was also in a big group photo with the chancellor of the university today, but really, which would you rather see?


To the Lighthouse

Last Saturday we took a short day trip to Sheboygan. (Because, hey, now we can say we've been to SHEBOYGAN). Who knew that a city which, much like Oshkosh, is typically the butt of middle-of-nowhere jokes could be so pretty? There was a lovely park right on Lake Michigan with a long walk on a jetty out to the lighthouse pictured above.

We also ate at a tasty (and very meat-heavy) restaurant on the bay, where we watched the beginning of the Brewers' game on big flat screen televisions. Once the Mets were out of it, we were rooting for the Brewers in the NL and are glad that at least they won that one game-- sort of a moral victory, if you will.

When going to the lighthouse, it's important to know how to get there. One also has to know how to squash it from afar:

I am squashing your lighthouse!!!! I am squashing your lighthouse!!!

I continue to really like Lake Michigan. The great inland sea is quite blue and lovely.