Danish Gymnasts, African Students & American Political Hype

In Minnesota Scandinavia, the Danes figure, along with their more populous cousins the Swedes and the Norwegians, as contributors of delectable (and hard to make) holiday treats; civic accountability; spare, appealing furniture design; and the Danish Gymnasts. Friends took me to view this smiling, blond, thoroughly fit and friendly troupe last night. In between ohhhs and ahhhs at double, triple twists, lovely swirls of girls in turquoise leotards, etc., we talked about Copenhagen as a place to visit–expensive food, I learned. Beautiful porcelain called Royal Copenhagen.

We, in fact, dined off a lovely set before the program: each plate hand-painted with a soft blue flower. And the eatables presented by our Danish friend from Tyler, Minnesota: first course of herring, pickles, and buttered brown (homemade) bread; second course of vegetable-beef soup with tiny dumplings made of the same stuff as cream puffs–no surprise that they melted in the mouth; and finally dessert of the most amazing combination: butter cookies made with Hartshorn, which must be obtained from a pharmacy; blue cheese, more brown bread, and succulent pears.

The Italian in me, who not so secretly believes that the best food in the world comes from Italy, had to sit back and leave the field to the Danes: that dessert could not be beat by any other ethnic combination. Or at least that’s what my tongue told me. Lest you think this Tyler-bred cuisine is off-the-beaten path, let me point out that the Danish Gymnasts, who are touring the world in ten months, will stop at Tyler, Minnesota. Where, I have taught several writers-in-the-schools residencies over the years and remember a culture hall, dedicated to Danish culture and conviviality.

One of the best things about being American is savoring our ethnic and racial differences. That’s one reason I enjoy teaching at Metro State where an upper-level writing class for nurses is likely to include recent immigrants from Africa. This year my class contains students from Kenya, Nigeria, the Sudan, and Uganda. Not to mention other immigrants from Southeast Asia, Greece, and all over Europe (but those with European roots come from families in the U.S. for many generations). The African students working for their nursing degrees are acute observers of the U.S. and their own countries. For the second paper, the class wrote on the huge topic of global warming, based on Lester Brown’s important book, Plan B. 4.0. (A friend who works for a Minnesota legislator says that Brown’s book informs many environmental debates at the legislative level.)

Two papers from African students caught my attention for their startling revelations about population. One, about AIDS in Uganda, pointed out that when a middle-aged man with HIV is treated with anti-retrovirus drugs (the “cocktail” that keeps many HIV patients alive for years), he may then live long enough to marry three more wives and father perhaps a score of children–all of whom will be infected with AIDS. Another paper began with a surprisingly humorous announcement of a death in Kenya: relatives of the 94-year-old deceased contributed three-quarters of the mourners at his funeral: he had been married 130 times, fathered almost 300 children and untold numbers of grandchildren (V. Duham, Oct. 2010, “Kenya’s Akuku….polygamy hall of fame”). My student followed this with a compelling description of Kenya’s deforestation, largely caused by clearing land for farming to feed the country’s rapidly expanding population.

There is little danger that the U.S. Danish-population will expand so much as to cause an environmental crisis in western Minnesota. In fact, my years of teaching as a writer-in-the-schools in farming Minnesota suggests that, if anything, these communities suffer from the reverse: dwindling population due to the consolidation of smaller family farms. What strikes me as I mull the experiences of the last few days, personal and public, writerly and political, is how complex are the policy decisions facing us, worldwide. Our recent election hoop-di-do raises angry voices, confrontative politics, and an awareness on my part that the U.S. swings wildly between apparently irreconcilable poles. Yes, within a decade we as a nation can experience wrenching contests and demanding alterations. Our excesses of hope, greed, and manipulation can wreck certain kinds of stability. The housing crisis, for instance, seems wrought in part by banks and mortgage companies who enticed families of very modest means and no experience in home-owning into accepting variable-rate mortgages. When the rates rose sky-high, what had been affordable became impossible. Who is most at fault: the ignorant home-buyer or the companies that lured them into this trap?

Maybe a portion of the American dream needs revision: instead of every family housed separately with a green swatch around us, we need to look back to the cities of Europe, with their apartment buildings, lovely green thoroughfares (sometimes), and, best of all possible worlds, no cars in the city center. I’m thinking of Munich, or Ferrara where I recently visited. We’ve eaten up all the wilderness we should; the forests and grasslands that remain need to stay as they are, protecting us from the damages of global warming, as we draw closer together, not so prickly of our neighbors, careful of our own expenses, and teaching each other about the future.

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