Sunday, March 18, 2018

Winter Farewell—Snowy Owls

It's the time of year when we get excited about the return of the robins. I saw one the other day down by the railroad tracks that cross through Theodore Wirth Golf Course. Robins tend to hang out there all winter ... but I hadn't seen one for months. And hearing that cheerful cluck as he flew overhead was a treat.

Winter birding is mostly occupied with a few species—woodpeckers, goldfinches, cardinals, chickadees, juncos, blue jays. There is usually one time during the winter, after or during a heavy snowfall, when the cardinals appear at the feeder en masse. During one such mid-afternoon storm in mid-January, I counted nine cardinals in the tree just beyond the deck.

A pileated woodpecker pays us a visit at least once every winter. Sometimes once a week.

The winter season is made more interesting by the arrival in northern Minnesota of arctic species, and this year some of them made their way farther south than usual. I saw my first-ever Bohemian waxwing on Park Point in Duluth in January, and during a visit with friends a few weeks ago to Itasca State Park, we walked right past a black-backed woodpecker who, heedless of the intrusion, continued to pound away at the bark of a sturdy red pine.

I was hardly less smitten by an abandoned nest we passed hanging from a fork in a branch only a few feet off the ground. Maybe a red-eyed vireo?

Ducks are now passing through town, looking for open water. Hilary and I went down to the Bass Pounds a few days ago to find large numbers of common mergansers—one of our most majestic birds—and also quite a few hooded mergansers, which are among the most beautiful, along with five or six scaup. We spotted a kingfisher buzzing from one pond to the nest—a true spring sighting. And several robins were clucking around, too.

We talked to the only other birder down there, and he asked us if we'd been to the airport to see the snowy owls.

"We went there yesterday," I replied, "but saw nothing except airplanes."

"Well, there were three of them there again this morning."

"Maybe we arrived too late," I said. (Maybe we just weren't trying hard enough, I thought.)

This morning as I stepped out to get the newspaper, the air was calm and the sunrise was stunning. Hey! It was still early. And Sunday morning might be the best time of the week to visit the airport without worrying about the traffic.

So we got in the car and headed for the airplane viewing lot on Cargo Road. Twenty minutes later we were standing on a picnic table, looking across a few runways at a snowy owl sitting on top of a flat-roofed building. Wow.

A man at the far end of the lot had pointed out the bird to us, though we would have spotted it before long. "I've seen three of them this morning. There's one over by gate 5, and another by that yellow pole—see it, in front of that red truck?" (It was the same man we'd seen at the Bass Ponds the previous day.)

In the photos here the owls look like gray lumps, but through the binoculars they were much more distinct. They preened themselves and swiveled their heads from side to side. One of them eventually took to the air and flew right past us like a fuzzy white barrel with wings, on his way to a nearby rooftop, where he landed on a railing but soon disappeared beyond the lip of the roof.
Astounding birds. Huge. Inscrutable. Nomadic. And their view of the airport runways is unique.

On our way back into town, we exited the freeway at Diamond Lake Road, looking for a bakery. We were headed for Patisserie 46 but pulled in at Sun Street Breads at 48th and Nicollet. It smelled like Paris inside, and it's always a delight to see people out and about on a Sunday morning—savvy South Minneapolis people, who perhaps meet their friends here every week! 

Monday, March 5, 2018

Cuba Here We Come - Adiόs Utopia

Back when I was a kid, Cuba was the preferred repository of utopian dreams and counter-culture dissatisfaction with bourgeois American society. The idea of a bearded revolutionary lawyer in army fatigues overthrowing a ruthless tyrant and colonial puppet on America's doorstep satisfied the archetypical psychic needs of a generation of well-fed suburban youth growing up in confusing times. 
As Tacitus once put it, Omni ignatum magnificat est. (What is unknown is taken to be something great.)  

Many Cubans found the Castro regime to be less than great. Some criticized it and were locked up or executed. Others fled. Still others made adjustments, kept their mouths shut, went on with their lives, and perhaps even thrived under the new regime.

The curators of the new show at the Walker Art Center have no interest in weighing the pros and cons of the Castro era. They take it for granted that things went wrong and devote their attention to artworks by individuals who became disillusioned for one reason or another. Revolutionary fervor and post-modern irony make strange bedfellows under the best of circumstances, and as the early promise of the revolution faded and the regime became more repressive, purveyors of bourgeois social criticism found themselves distinctly out of place.    

A great variety of mediums and styles are on display, from Pop Art iconography to journalistic photography to video pieces and installation art, and many of the pieces are interesting, though more often historically or conceptually than aesthetically.

I was taken by the rowboat constructed out of Marxist theoretical tracts ... though that may be simply because I like books and boats, but do not like Marx. And how often do you come upon a lighthouse lying on its side in the middle of a room, with the light still turning slowly?

A six-foot Mexican flag hangs on one wall made largely of the hair of Cubans who fled to Southern California. A gaunt, rugged statue of a Cuban hero of an earlier age, José Martí, reminded me of both a traditional Spanish Colonial wooden statue and Donatello's "David."

Photos from the early days of the revolution, though obviously posed, have historical interest, as do Pop Art portraits of Che Guevara, Fidel, and other heroes of the revolution. One room was devoted to Cuban art from the 1950s, and, as Hilary observed, it could have come from anywhere. It looked a little tame, though its non-representational subject matter gave it a restful character in the midst of so many images of anger, longing, frustration, and disappointment.

This notion, that the art could have come from anywhere, might also be applied to the rest of the show to some degree. The themes were Cuban, certainly, but the "styles" were typically post-modern, and this gave the show a somewhat ambiguous flair. It's all well and good for an artist to set him- or herself up against bourgeois conventions, but it seems odd to make use of the same techniques to "challenge the assumptions" of revolutionary conventions, which have already set themselves up against bourgeois conventions. It puts you right back where you started from.

One playful piece consisted of a meter facetiously designed to measure the incendiary character of any work of art. The readings on the dial ranged from "san problema" to "problematica" to "counterrevolutionaria" to "diversionismo." I found it amusing that blatantly counter-revolutionary art was ranked lower on the scale than art designed to divert the viewer's attention.

My favorite works were a series of five Monty-Pythonesque collages by a woman named Sandra Ramos. They had a wistful lyricism and interiority that was lacking in many of the works.  

By the same token, I took a liking to a large multi-media icon of a sailor that was displayed with the title, "My Father." It had the most earthy and peasant-like feel of any piece in the show. And I thought it looked cool.

It was family day at the Walker and also Free First Saturday, and the building was full of lively activity. We ate lunch at the museum cafe, Esker Grove, where the food was only fair and not very hot. 

It could have used a bit of Cuban spice.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Cozy North

It's been a great winter, snowy and cold like they were in the 1960s, when I walked a mile to school every day through the bitter morning air down the backstreets of the village of Mahtomedi. 

Our snow blower has been on the blink for several years now, and just this morning, as I chucked piles of snow up the bank on either side of the driveway, I stopped often to admire the peaceful atmosphere and the beautiful sunlight suffusing the neighborhood at dawn, the air totally free of the smell of gasoline.

I learned this year, entirely by chance, how nice it can be to have a very light shovel. Hilary's parents gave us theirs when they moved into a senior apartment: a square sheet of corrugated red plastic stapled to a wooden dowel. It  looked like a cheap toy, and we took it merely to get it out of their way. For years I've been using a thick metal plow-like shovel that's great for scraping across the concrete driveway but weighs about twenty pounds. The first time I lifted snow with the new "toy" I was amazed.

Settling myself here in front of the computer, I see my neighbor, Alice, shoveling the heaps left by the snowplow this morning out by the street. I ought to go out and help her, but I've got a crick in my back, and as she says herself, with a bittersweet grin, "I've got two lazy teenage girls sleeping the day away inside."

Brendan, my neighbor across the street, has a snow-blower the size of a Zamboni, and he sometimes helps her out. But now I see his wife, Sara, out on their driveway with a shovel, and I'm reminded that his machine in on the fritz, and he, too, has got a crick in his back.

It's a bright morning, made brighter by the pristine snow. No summer day could rival this luminosity. And to top things off, this perfect light penetrates far deeper into the house than it does in summer when the sun is high.     

I call it February Light—not an imaginative name, I realize, but it's accurate, and naming something reminds you, year after year, that it exists.

* * *

Speaking of naming things, in the run-up to the Superbowl, attempts were made to "rebrand" Minnesota as a wonderland separate from, and presumably more distinctive than, Iowa, Wisconsin, and the Midwest at large. The effort was a harmless one, though it harbored commercial overtones that few Minnesotans—modest to a fault—could get excited about. "Bold North," for example, was a complete flop, absurd and self-defeating. After all, the Vikings of yore didn't go around exclaiming, "Watch out; we're BOLD!"  They just appeared unexpectedly, growled unintelligibly, chopped off a few heads, took the monastery jewels, and continued on their way.

In any case, to be useful, a regional moniker ought to refer to a region, rather than a single state. Minnesota finds itself in the pleasant but unusual situation on being of the border of three regions: the Great Plains, the boreal forest (aka the North Woods), and the eastern hardwoods. Its proximity to Lake Superior gives it an added touch of romance, but its only claim to unique northerliness lies in the Northwest Angle, a curious anomaly accessible only from Canada that juts a few miles north of the 49th parallel.

Even this claim has been challenged by Alaskan journalists, who harbor the strange notion that Alaska is part of the United States. I found the column of Craig Medred, "Geographical Thievery," especially nimble and amusing.  He has no way of knowing, I guess, that to most Americans, Alaska is simply Alaska: outsized, empty, cold, wild, wonderful, and (thanks to Sarah Palin and friends) weird. No other state or region can compare or compete with it, and everyone knows that. It isn't in the contest.

Yet we ought to admit that Minnesotans are grasping at straws when they take pride in having the only indigenous wolf packs (in the lower 48) half of all the peat bogs (in the lower 48), the coldest recorded temperatures (in the lower 48), and the most visited wilderness area in the U.S. These features are all found in the largely uninhabited northern tier of the state, and they're basically fortuitous spill-overs from Canada. Inhabitants of Albert Lea and Fergus Falls probably don't much care.

In any case, it seems to me that Bold North has a false ring that makes it even worse than the slogan that emerged from the 1991 World Series: We Like It Here. The latter slogan carried a passive-aggressive undertone, as if to say, "We like it here ... even though it appears that you don't. If so, feel free to leave." But nowadays that stance won't do. The Twin Cities isn't growing as fast as Denver or Seattle, and city fathers are worried.

However, most Minnesotans aren't worried about such things--quite the reverse--and we're slightly embarrassed by all the manufactured hoopla. Therefore, in place of Bold North, let me suggest an alternative: Cozy North—ice dams on the roof, fire in the fireplace, woodpeckers at the suet feeder, pasty in the oven, accordion music on the stereo (well, let's not get carried away!), February light streaming in, book in lap (maybe Will Weaver's The Last Hunter, or Tarjei Vesaas's Norwegian classic, The Birds?).

 Proud North stubs its toe with the Vikings; Cozy North goes all the way in Pyeonchang with the Chisholm Curling Club Team.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Killing Time in St. Paul

It was a retirement party in a neighborhood without a name on the eastern edge of Highland Park in St. Paul. I dropped Hilary off—she was one of the organizers—and puttered north on Hamline Avenue past Randolph and St. Clair to Grand Avenue. On the CD player, alto saxophonist Frank Morgan was spinning an energetic version of Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time." Indeed.

I had ninety minutes to kill before the event got underway, and I had a plan. First stop, Kowalski's Market. It's one of those supermarkets where the lighting director makes more than the butcher or the produce buyer. Low light and dazzling displays everywhere, many types of "artisanal" crackers at $6.50 a box. I noticed that the display sign for one regional brand, Maple Terroir, had been misspelled as Maple Terrior. People in St. Paul do love their dogs, but all the same I thought I ought to tell someone.

There was no one in the booth, so I mentioned the goof to a passing woman wearing an apron, and she seemed pleased. "Oh, you must be an English major," she said with a big smile. It's been a long time since anyone took an interest in what my college major was! No. I  shook my head. "...but I do edit books for a living." Not exactly true, but the woman looked as pleased as punch.  I think I might have made her day.

My "plan" was a simple one: to pick up a box of Wasa crisps. They're sold in France under the name Cracottes; that's how Hilary and I first ran into them and how we refer to them to this day. Old habits die hard, and in any case, the word Wasa connotes those puffy but thick and hard crackers that are difficult to bite through and actually taste and smell like the farm. Cracottes, on the other hand, are airy and light—the perfect vehicle to carry slices of hard-boiled egg with wasabi mayonnaise on a bed of fresh arugula to your mouth—and at $3.50 per box, it seemed like a steal.

I wandered the store with my single item (net weight 4.9 ounces) dangling in a green plastic basket, feeling a little foolish as I watched people ordering quart containers of delightful looking salads from the deli. I briefly admired a sheet cake with a splendid rendering of Mt. Rushmore on top. I pondered the fresh fish sitting in beds of ice in a glass-fronted gondola, took in the strange aromas of fancy soaps in the cleaning aisle, and eventually added a box of Kind bars (net weight 5.2 ounces) to my stash. Why? I don't know. I haven't eaten one of those since the Luminary Loppet of 2016, where they were being given away out on the ice on Lake of the Isles.

Kowalski's doesn't have a self-check. I thought I'd found one, but it turned out I was standing behind an unoccupied cash register. The entry pad was incomprehensible, and nothing was lighting up. The woman at the customer service desk saw me, took pity, and called me over to her counter.

Finally back on the street with my purchases, I headed west on Grand Avenue a half-block to Sixth Chamber Books. I seldom visit bookstores these days--I already have quite a few--but I've been reading Dante's Divine Comedy recently and thought I might come across a mentor paperback edition of the Paradiso—the Ciardi translation.

Besides, I still had 45 minutes to kill.

I had no luck with the Dante, but ended up purchasing two books from the memoir section, Kafka was the Rage: a Greenwich Village Memoir by Anatole Broyard, and Finding Fontainebleau: an American Boy in France by Thad Carhart.  Carhart's other book, The Little Piano Shop on the Left Bank, is wonderful. I think of Broyard as the Adam Gopnik of an earlier era. Both were from French or quasi-French New World cities (New Orleans and Montreal, respectively); both fell in love with New York, had small, seedy apartments, studied art history with famous critics, had plenty of bohemian adventures, and read a lot of books.

Broyard made some money while in the service during the war, and among the first adventures he describes is opening a used bookshop in Greenwich Village.
I had imagined myself like Saint Jerome in his study [he writes] bent over his books, with the tamed lion of his con­quered restlessness at his feet. My customers would come and go in studious silence, pausing, with averted eyes, to leave the money on my desk. But it didn’t turn out like that. What I hadn’t realized was that, for many people, a bookshop is a place of last resort, a kind of moral flophouse. Many of my customers were the kind of people who go into a bookshop when all other diver­sions have failed them. Those who had no friends, no pleasures, no resources came to me. They came to read the handwriting on the wall, the bad news. They stud­ied the shelves like people reading the names on a war memorial.
Others came not to buy books but to tell their stories.
It was the talkers who gave me the most trouble. Like the people who had sold me books, the talkers wanted to sell me their lives, their fictions about them­selves, their philosophies. Following the example of the authors on the shelves, infected perhaps by them, they told me of their families, their love affairs, their illusions and disillusionments. I was indignant. I wanted to say, Wait a minute! I’ve already got stories here! Take a look at those shelves!
      While I pretended to listen, I asked myself which were more real—theirs, or the stories on the shelves ... In the commonplaceness of their narra­tives, some of these talkers anticipated the direction that American fiction would eventually take—away from the heroic, the larger than life, toward the ordinary, the smaller than life.
These excerpts may sound a little grim, but the tone of the narrative is consistently crisp and often funny. In one brief semi-Freudian episode, for example, Broyard inadvertently destroys several corkscrews while trying to open a bottle of wine in Anias Nin's apartment. Just standing there in the bookstore aisle, I got a renewed sense of Broyard's buoyant and  incisive prose, which I dimly recalled from his book reviews in the Times, but I hesitated before making my way to the front desk with the volume. Then it occurred to me that it cost only 25 cents more than the Kind bars waiting for me in the car. And the woman behind the counter had let me use the restroom. Let's give her some custom.

"The owners are here most days," she told me as she was ringing me up.

"I live in Golden Valley," I said. "I rarely get over to this neighborhood."

"They also keep a meticulous record of their stock online, so you should check the website if you don't find what you're looking for. They might have it in storage. They also run a shop in River Falls."

"I think I've been to that shop," I said. "I got a copy of volume one of Walter Benjamin's collected works out there. Are you familiar with his work?"

"I've never heard of him."

"Well, I wouldn't recommend him."

Back in the car, I took the first left turn off Grand, and then a strange thing happened. I thought I was on Hamline, which I was not. I was planning to turn left on Hartford, which would have been a mistake. In any case, every left turn seemed to go immediately down a hill into the woods, which seemed very odd. When I finally looked at the signs, I discovered that I was at the corner of Edgecumbe Drive and Ford Parkway, which seemed impossible. (Nice neighborhood, though.)

Curling west back to familiar territory on Snelling Avenue, I made my way easily to the house, just in time to take a look at Celeste's hand-made books (a head start on one of her retirement projects) before all the guests arrived, and to pour champagne, both white and pink, into an array of tall thin glasses of various sizes and shapes.

Let the party begin!    

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Film Contrasts

I left the theater at the end of The Shape of Water thinking: That was pretty good. But when it comes down to describing Guillermo del Toro's latest film in the clear light of day, the words that spring to mind are "sentimental," "didactic," "unsubtle," "in bad taste." The varnished and stylized sets reminded me of films I didn't like much, such as Hugo and Amelie, and I was also reminded more than once of a film I liked a lot more than this one, the Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar! another film set in the Eisenhower era with a Cold War subplot and elaborate dance numbers. But the Coen brothers have learned how to provide specific details that elevate their characters above the level of caricature. Del Toro's characters, good or bad, don't develop or surprise us much. Therein lies the problem.

In the role of Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning woman at a top-secret government research facility, Sally Hawkins shines, as usual. The rest of the cast, not so much. Richard Jenkins plays Elisa's roommate, a hapless, unemployed illustrator, with less pizzazz than he showed in The Visitor

Octavia Spenser plays Elisa's no-nonsense friend among the cleaning crew with the same gusto she delivered in The Help and Hidden Figures: you can't help liking her. On the other hand, Michael Shannon is especially one-dimensional as the vain, cruel, and arrogant security chief who recently discovered an exotic sea creature somewhere in Brazil, brought it back to the lab, and now delights in torturing it with a cattle prod, for no apparent reason. Del Toro, who loves cartoons,  might just as well have gone all the way and given him the name "Snidely Whiplash."

Eliza bonds with the mysterious creature, who's bright and sensitive but just as lonely and misunderstood as she is, and this connection gives the fable much of its appeal.  Some of the effects are nice. There are touches of humor and adventure here and there. A thoughtful scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg, fresh from the Coens' A Serious Man) is harassed by his communist superiors (Boris and Natasha, fresh from Rocky and Bullwinkle). But everything moves a little slowly—as if it were taking place under water.

The last few scenes are among the best, I think, but they take their strength more from voice-over words than images: "Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, It humbles my heart, For You are everywhere."

The creature is a healer, if not a god. He could defuse the Cold War, ease racial tensions, and all the rest. This is the mystery the film takes great pains to bring to life, without us knowing it. And cumbersome and two-dimensional though the narrative may often be, in the end, it sort of succeeds.

I was only hoping that as we sink to the bottom of the harbor, we'd come upon an old sedan and solve the BIG mystery, the one that has keep film fans of The Big Sleep tossing and turning for decades: who killed Sean Regan?

The Insult: This Lebanese film takes us in the opposite direction, away from dreams of love and peace toward seemingly irreconcilable strife.

The "insult" referred to in the title is personal. It comes at the end of a series of petty tit-for-tat exchanges on a day much like any other. A construction foreman loses patience with a local resident in the neighborhood where he's working who flaunts the regulations regarding a drainpipe on his balcony. The foreman, Salameh, happens to be Palestinian; the resident, Tony, is a right-wing Christian. Salameh fixes the drain, Tony destroys the new pipe with a hammer, and Salameh in turn calls Tony a "fucking prick."

Tony demands an apology. When Salameh, at the urging of his boss, finally returns to the neighborhood to offer one, he finds it impossible to do so over the din of a Christian political rally Tony's got blaring in his repair shop. Eventually Tony shouts in Salameh's face, "I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out," and Salameh punches him in the gut.

Things only get more complicated from there, and eventually these almost accidental adversaries end up in court. The contending lawyers peel away layers of personal history and memory to expose the scars and wounds both men carry after decades of sectarian strife stretching back to the civil war of 1990. Meanwhile, the Christian and Muslim camps attending the trial get rowdy, and fighting spills out into the street.

This is not one of those courtroom dramas where we're all rooting for Tom Hanks and he convinces the jury in the end. It's a tense and sometimes ugly affair in which the protagonists, both decent people, perhaps, are often just as uncomfortable as we are about the their respective lawyers' arguments and techniques. The acting is superb, the pace well-modulated, the tone even-handed. The resolution? Non-existent. 

And yet Director Ziad Doueiri has been quoted as saying: “The film is so positive, in spite of the darkness that’s looming over the Middle East. The Middle East has never been in such a bad, hopeless shape, and this film offers a lot of hope, it has a lot of humor and is pretty sympathetic to everyone. You could watch it and think we might not be so doomed after all.” 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Super Bowls

The other day I came upon a small book of poems on the shelf by the Argentinean surrealist Julio Cortazar, and it reminded me of the value of letting one's associations roam—fun for the writer, maybe not for the reader.

Bowls have been on my mind, for some reason. We stopped over to the American Swedish Institute the other day, where an exhibit called CraftBowls is in full swing. In the modern showroom near the door more than a hundred bowls of various shapes, sizes, colors, and materials have been set out, each with a story told on a little card from its own point of view. Some are ceramic, others are made of metal, glass, felt, or wood. Some are fanciful, others "primitive." Among my favorites were a pair of Sami bowls that look like spoons; and also, of course, many of the hand-thrown pieces.

In the lobby restaurant I felt the urge to order a bowl of tomato-basil soup (though I hated tomato soup as a child). It was the highlight of the lunch, far better than Campbell's, though the duck terrine was more picturesque. When eating at Fika, the smell and crunch of a single piece of toast can inspire rhapsodies of appreciation.

Next door in the mansion, works by several contemporary artists from Scandinavia were on display. But here the attempt to combine modern craft technique with ancient lore and tradition was on shakier ground.

Bertil Vallien, identified in brochures as "Sweden’s leading figure in international glass," has made some peculiar glass vessels that may be technically brilliant but struck me as toy-like and juvenile rather than mythic in conception. Videos give us glimpses of the man philosophizing about the thin membrane of the vessel upholding its contents against the mystery and danger of the surrounding depths. It sounded poetic, indeed, but the pieces themselves, though spectacularly lit, looked rather makeshift and obvious.

Then again, if I actually owned one of those glass boats, and had it expertly displayed on the mantle above the fireplace, I'd have more time to examine it and feel its presence; in time, I'd probably warm to its subtler meanings and emanations. 
In a nearby room a selection of wooden spoons, chairs, "shrink-boxes," and objects d'art by Swedish woodworker Jögge Sundvkist are on display. He often crafts them with nothing but an axe and a knife, and can whip one out in half an hour or less to the pounding rhythms of Swedish rock'n'roll. He was in town a few days ago to show us how he does it—or so the docent roaming the galleries told me.

Sundvkist is sort of a rock star himself, at least in the eyes of Hemslöjden, the National Association of Swedish Handicraft Societies. Yet I'm not convinced that his approach to craft is in any way philosophical or deep, as it's being described in the promotional material. I have seen better utensils on display recently at the Swedish Institute that were crafted by local Minnesota artisans—better because more delicate and utilitarian, and with a greater appreciation of the nuances of the wood.

And they don't cost $400 apiece, either. 

Don't get me wrong. All of these small exhibits are well worth seeing. But they raise questions in my mind as to whether "mythic" or traditional themes can be revived or preserved at will, rather than developing naturally out of the midst of a community for whom such stories and artifacts are essential elements of survival and meaning. 
One small room was devoted to the work of Ingegerd Råman, who carries the official designation of a Swedish National Living Treasure. Her plates, cups, and glasses look a lot like the things we might buy at Ikea, but they're a little bit better: simple, lightweight, elegant. There is unquestionably something commercial about them, but nothing of the faux-folk or the faux-mythic, and in her vases she gets to create one-of-a-kind pieces in which years of practice result in flowing, unostentatious vessels.

 A few days later we wandered down to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see a very minor exhibit of ceramic bowls thrown by twentieth-century Japanese masters of the art. The Institute has become so labyrinthine—so full of small, square, interior spaces with numbers like 232 and 434—that I had to ask a guard where the "exhibit" was. (I had tried, without success, to find its location on the iPad sitting on a bench in the lobby that now serves as an introductory guide.)

The "bowls" were nice, and more than nice, though technically they weren't bowls but water jars used to bring in the water to be heated for a tea ceremony and also to clean the utensils after the ceremony is over.

On our way through the Asian wing we stopped at the exquisitely recreated scholar's study, and also the small display case containing a dried mushroom (good for longevity) and two ceramic trays about the size of my fingernail that were once used to feed pet crickets. I couldn't help thinking of that long tradition of scholars and writers (until recently almost invariably men) who derived great satisfaction from sitting alone in a room reading the thoughts of others or recording their own thoughts in the hope that others would read them, or recording them merely to focus, reflect, and get their heads on straight.

Finally, so as not to ignore entirely the bowl that's come to our humble village of Minneapolis, we went downtown a few nights ago with friends to experience a little of the Superbowl hysteria in which many segments of the nation have been gripped for a week or two. We rode the train in from Midway, and as we traveled west I had a tough time determining where we were, exactly, through the frosty windows. Dinkytown? Stadium Village? The West Bank?

I reminded my friend that in 1972 we'd lived together with seven other young women and men in a three-story house on that street—a "house" later known as the Zoo. I had ridden my bike down that street, day after day, or hitchhiked, or walked. 

We eventually arrived at Nicollet Mall, got off, and wandered south through various security check-points, listened to snatches of the New Power Generation (or was it Mint Condition?) performing in their thick parkas, and saw bored sportscasters we couldn't identify getting ready to broadcast on ESPN (or whatever) in the Crystal Court, where, in an earlier era, we had once seen Andy Warhol walk by.

It was fun. But the liveliest element of the scene was the brightly lit ski sprint competition running back and forth over the Birkebeiner Bridge.

Corporate sponsors were everywhere—Target, Verizon, Doritos—but the event had the feel of a county fair, where everyone is enjoying the flashing lights and the community vibe but there isn't really that much to DO. You could get your picture taken in a snow-globe, or step briefly into the Anderson Windows warming house. The line to get into the Target Bull's Eye Lodge was too long, and the free skate-rental at the rink on Peavey Plaza required a lengthy sign-in that seemed to augur a life-long relationship with Hyundi vehicles. 

One block off the mall, we grabbed a quick dinner at a sports bar called the Union Grill, where all the TVs were tuned to basketball games. It started to snow, and on the way back to the light-rail station my face was unpleasantly lacerated by tiny icy crystals. We skipped the NFL merchandise mart and were not even aware of the pop-up Prince museum nearby, but the good news is, I found a student rail pass lying in the street which got me on the train free of charge. 

Not that anyone was checking.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Crossing the Urban-Rural Divide

I attended a MinnPost Social event at the Happy Gnome with a friend the other day. The ostensible focus was on the "urban-rural divide." Is it a reality, or is it a myth?

The featured speaker, Gregg Ammot, is a MinnPost staff reporter, and he's written some interesting articles recently about things going on in places like Crosby and Montevideo. His presentation the other night was less specific, and therefore less interesting. Ammot's talk was peppered with phrases like "to some extent," "cuts both ways," "you can't generalize," "it's a complicated picture," or others in a similarly evasive vein.

Perhaps he was worried about exhibiting a bias, but it would have been useful to present some relevant facts about (for example) how urban and out-state population, legislative representation, and funding sit with one another. Instead, Ammot hemmed and hawed and failed, in the end, to say anything substantive about the topic at hand. 

Lucky for us, the audience was peppered with individuals with expertise in various aspects of Minnesota culture and politics. I'm not well-versed in Minnesota politics myself, and I don't remember the names, but to take an example, someone asked a question about the need for more broadband in rural areas, and there happened to be a woman in the audience who had been in charge of the state's grants program in that area for the last three years.

Near the end of the evening, audience members started asking more pointed questions about how much the Twin Cities subsidizes rural areas, and a gentleman from Swift County who owns several regional newspapers offered an interesting spin. "I spent a fortune educating my kids so that they could leave Benson and move to Minneapolis. So I've been subsidizing the Twin Cities for decades."

Someone asked an astute follow-up question: "Have you considered ways to make small towns in your region more lively and appealing to local youth?"

Coffee shop in Benson, MN
Another man in the audience brought up an interesting aspect of the subject near the end of the program: the death of the family farm. He told us that as a teenager in Pepin County, Wisconsin, he used to help his dad, an electrician, service 63 farms in the area. "Now," he added, "there are three farms in the area."

His remark reminded me of an article I read about Pepin County in Politico a few months ago with the title, Inside a Blue County Trump Turned Red. It offers a fascinating look at differing attitudes among locals and outsiders—and in some small towns, if you aren't a third-generation local, you're an outsider, no matter how often you attend church or shop at the local Cenex convenience store. The locals appreciate the business but are quick to detect an element of condescension in the air. Newcomers and summer residents are often oblivious to the vague feeling of resentment and reverse-snobbery their presence inspires.

Cafe in Pepin county owned by a real estate developer from Edina
I ran into an old friend the other day. He'd been raised in a small town on the North Shore but moved to the Cities for college and work. He and his wife were both outdoor enthusiasts, and they decided to relocate to Hibbing to be closer to the North Woods. However, when their son got to school age they moved back to SW Minneapolis. "I didn't want my kid developing those small-town attitudes in school," he told me. "You know what I mean." (I'm not sure I do.)

Now his son is grown and he and his wife are back in Grand Marias. It's hard to find good jobs there...but they like the pace of life; it's where they want to be. 

On the other hand, I met a young woman in Hutchinson not long ago who had moved there with her kids from Minneapolis. Housing was cheaper, and she found it much easier to get involved with local arts organizations there. Well, Hutchinson is a model of sorts among Minnesota towns. Just 40 miles from Minneapolis, it has a city park along the river, an attractive town square, a booming medical complex, and a 3M plant. Other mid-sized towns haven't been so fortunate.

Such tales can be multiplied many fold, of course. Connecting the dots between individual stories, what we come up with isn't a divide but a spectrum of attitudes and experiences, pulsing and shifting like the Northern Lights and similarly riven by streaks of darkness and illumination. It starts to look like a stark divide only when people are called upon to vote.

I suspect that on some issues--immigration, abortion, taxation, the environment--glaring crevises exist between city folk and country folk. I had hoped to learn more. At one point Ammot drew our attention to the town of Worthington, in the southwestern part of the state, where a third of the residents are now foreign born, but he didn't say anything much about how the old-timers in town feel about the situation, or how it affects their politics. 

The city mouse and the country mouse
The urban-rural split has a history extending back to Aesop, one of whose moral tales involves a city mouse lavishly entertaining a country mouse. When the cat arrives, the country mouse scurries home, convinced that personal safety is worth far more than fine wines and sauces.

A classic "recent" example appears in Marcel Pagnol's film and text versions of the rural saga Jean de Florette (remade in 1986 to great aclaim) in which a city man inherits some land, and the locals do everything they can think of to bilk him out of it.

The crafty villagers in Jean de Florette
In 2010  MinnPost ran an article by Sharon Schmickle in which she examined some demographic trends exposed by the then-recent census. Among the discoveries that I found most interesting is that “rural” folk own more vehicles than urban folk. Schmickle attributes this to the lack of public transportation options out-state, but I’m not so sure we need to feel sorry for our country cousins on that score. In the country, many people keep old cars around for spare parts. Then again, they might well have put the “closed” sign on the window of their beauty salon and are now out roaming the hills on their ATVs and snow machines. Meanwhile, we city folk remain cooped up in suburban office towers planning desperately how to avoid the rush hour traffic on our way home.

The annual 4th of July canoe trip in Appleton, Minnesota
Hilary and I enjoy visiting small towns, reading the local newspapers, admiring the quaint architecture, hunting out obscure diners, and taking every opportunity to strike up conversations with the locals, or at least do a little eavesdropping. The locals might accuse us of slumming or condescension, but more often they seem eager to share their experiences with strangers from the city who take an interest in what's going on locally. We have found that Wadena, Spring Grove, and Hackensack are interesting places to visit, not to mention Effie (especially during Rodeo Days), Milan, and Embarrass.

Do I really "know" those places? Of course not. But I'm learning. And I'm counting on future investigative reports from Ammot and other MinnPost reporters to help me out with that.