Sunday, October 23, 2016

Trump and the Theological Origins of Modernity

On a Sunday afternoon, following a spectacular road trip down the Mississippi to Red Wing and then back up the Wisconsin side, with a slice of cheese on the plate and a Picardy glass of pinot noir beside it, the time has perhaps arrived to consider whether the Trump phenomenon might be properly explained by reference to the nominalist challenge to Scholasticism that arose in the early fourteenth century.

That seems to be the thesis advanced by Michael Allen Gillespie in his recent book, The Theological Origins of Modernity. One cannot read more than a few pages of this crisply written work without screeching to a halt repeatedly at the specious generalizations, the most glaring of which concerns the concept of modernity itself. Does such a thing as modernity exist? If so, in what does it consist?

The simple answer is that modernity does not exist in any palpable way. We are all cave dwellers, slaves, saints, foragers, mystics, warriors, scientists, artists, lovers, bureaucrats, and heals, and the recent history of our nation reflects that complex and contradictory makeup. The more historically minded among us might sometimes propose that we are creatures of reason and self-assertion who have triumphed over the dogma and superstition of the Middle Ages, and such is, in fact, the case. But only to a degree.

The same thing could be said in reverse, of course. Very few people who lived during the Middle Ages knew the slightest thing about the medieval "world view" so amply elaborated by Thomas Aquinas, and they certainly knew nothing at all about the long-running dispute between the "realists" and the "nominalists." They could be very "modern." If you've read a few bawdy stories from the Decameron (1353) or the even more risque French fabliaux upon which Boccaccio's tales are often based, the similarity between the modern era and the Middle Ages becomes more striking still.

And consider the troubadours, who, nine hundred years ago,  were often filled with "modernist" individuality and  self-assertion. In one of his lyrics Bernart de Ventadorn (ca. 1150) writes:

Of course it’s no wonder I sing
better than any other troubadour:
my heart draws me more toward love,
and I am better made for his command.
Heart body knowledge sense
strength and energy—I have set all on love,
The rein draws me straight toward love,
and I cannot turn toward anything else.

A man is really dead when he does not feel
some sweet taste of love in his heart;
and what is it worth to live without worth,
except to irritate everybody?
May the Lord God never hate me so
that I live another day, or even less than a day,
after I am guilty of being such a pest,

and I no longer have the will to love.

To modern ears verses of this kind may sound naive. In any case, the idea they advance—that preferential amorous love lies at the center of masculine self-worth—is not terribly Christian. Fealty to the local duke or king, certainly; dedication to a life of spiritual exercises and obligations, of course. But on what grounds can personal love be elevated to the highest plane of value? Yet this is what the troubadours espoused repeatedly, and it had the effect of turning life, at least as it appears in the courtly literature of the times, into a series of inspired but also arbitrary, grandiose, and often ridiculous adventures.

The German scholar Erich Auerbach once noted:
When we moderns speak of adventure, we mean something unstable, peripheral, disordered… a something that stands outside the real meaning of existence. All of this is precisely what the word does not mean in the courtly romance. On the contrary, trial through adventure is the real meaning of the knight’s ideal existence.
I look forward to examining Gillespie's analysis of the nominalist challenge to the realist orthodoxy more closely. The arguments bear striking parallels to those we use today to keep the arrogance of scientistic reasoning at bay. But I doubt whether he will hit on the central truth of the matter: the nominalists were right, for the most part. There are many horses in the world, but the thing called "horse" does not actually exist. Another way of putting the same point is that Aristotle's notion of "species," which is still in wide use today, is a fiction—a useful but metaphysically empty fiction. (I have a secret hunch that this is what Gillespie's overriding point will turn out to be. But will I have the patience to ferret it out?)

Matters are complicated by the fact that in a few instances, the realists had the upper ground, and these are the most important ones. Every beautiful thing partakes of "beauty." Every accurate judgment partakes of "truth." Every loving act partakes of that quality. (Ask Bernart!) And speaking more broadly (but also more vaguely), every worthy action of any kind partakes of "god." 

Yet beyond the specific instances, these things—beauty, truth, love, god—do actually exist. We feel them, sense them, strive for them every day.

And that's what Democrats will be voting to preserve and extend on election day. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Indian Summer

It was one of those stunning mornings after an overnight  rain, cool and wet and bright with sun. Yellow leaves on the trees, tending toward orange-red here and there.

I had gone to pick up some vegetables for soup and other concoctions; the store was largely deserted, a seminar was underway in the produce department, and I thought to myself: "That's what I should have been: a produce stocker."

For a split second I even entertained the thought that maybe it wasn't too late! No, it is too late.

When I stepped out into the glaring sun of the parking lot, I was pleasantly reminded of a parking lot I crossed in Apache Junction, Arizona, many years ago on a similarly brilliant morning. There was a cactus wren hopping around amid the litter that morning, and there might even have been frost on the concrete. But the essential quality was unbounded light and joy. Just like yesterday.(And today)

How do we explain this flashback? It might have been because I was listening to a Carlos Nakai CD on my way to the store. Why? Because I'm getting a string of digital images together for a talk I'm scheduled to give on Friday about the National Parks. Earlier in the morning I'd been sorting through a few scenes of Canyonlands. 

No point in talking about the Maze. Few in the audience of fifty-odd retirees are likely to be going there any time soon. But what about Horseshoe Canyon, with its spooky Barrier-style petroglyphs? It's a seven-mile hike there and back down the floor of a deserted canyon, but nevertheless it would be well worth showing some images of the art.

I had planned to cook up some broccoli-wild rice casserole for my in-laws, who are experiencing some mobility constraints, but in the end I decided to make a batch of what I call Beltrami Salad. 

Count Beltrami, as you may know, was an Italian adventurer (but not a count) who hooked a ride on a steamboat with Stephen Long in 1823 up the Minnesota River, then down the Red River of the North. Long had been sent to determine where the border between the United States and British territories lay; Beltrami was confident that he was about to discover the source of the Mississippi River through the back door, as it were. He hired an Indian guide who abandoned him somewhere on the Red Lake River, but Beltrami persevered,  hauling his canoe upstream single-handedly, and eventually arrived at a body of water he named Lake Luisa, in honor of his girlfriend. 

It isn't the headwaters of the Mississippi ... but there's a monument on a hill nearby commemorating Beltrami's near-miss.

Beltrami Salad is part Italian and part Native American. It consists of wild rice mixed with orzo and flavored with sautéed shallots and tarragon—a bit of a French touch. There were some mushrooms in the fridge getting old, and I cooked some of them up, too, and tossed them in.

The smell of wild rice cooking reminds me of wet tree bark. A woodsy, autumnal smell. Hilary cut a handful of parsley from the front garden, and I tossed that in, too.

The day had remained stunning throughout, but as twilight approached I was looking around for something suitable to read—something to sustain the pastoral yet vaguely ecstatic mood. Patrick Modiano, the lugubrious French novelist? No way. Alexander Hamilton: from Obscurity to Greatness? Too political. I finally hit upon something that suited the moment perfectly: Good Seeds—A Menominee Indian Food Memoir by Thomas Pecore Weso. 

In this short book (113 pages of text) Weso describes growing up on the Menominee Reservation, his focus being on the things he hunted, the crops he and his relatives grew, and the berries and nuts various members of the tribe gathered. The book has a quiet tone, direct, honest, charming, and curious rather than edgy or strident. The first two chapters set the mood, with grandmother cooking downstairs while grandfather prays—or "dreams," as Weso puts it—upstairs.  Subsequent chapters are devoted to fishing, hunting, and fruit-gathering, though there are also chapters about German beer and Wisconsin Diner food. Each chapter concludes with a few recipes.

Weso's grandfather looms large in the early pages. He comes across as a leader, a diplomat, someone not only capable of building bridges between whites and Indians, but also aware of how important it is to do so. Weso reports that he was thirty-five years old the first time he saw his grandfather in traditional Indian garb. It was at a peyote ceremony of the Native American church. His grandfather was wearing a headband more intricate and idiosyncratic than any he had seen before, and he speculated that it dated from pre-contact times. He considers it a reflection of how highly esteemed in the community his grandfather was.
"I can now see," Weso writes, "that Grandpa was trying to create a political climate in accordance with a spiritual climate, and I think people expected him to do this in his role as a medicine man. My grandfather talked to white people, black people, Indian people, and he tried to learn how to interact with each equally...  My grandfather never told boastful stories about himself, as he was very modest, but he was a leader."
Probing a little deeper into his grandfather's philosophy, Weso concludes that is was based on the urge to help people feel better about themselves. "If people feel good about themselves, they take better care of themselves, their domain, their town, and their land."

The good-natured tone of Good Seeds is no doubt a reflection of Weso's success at absorbing the teachings of his revered grandfather, from whom he learned that even the simplest daily tasks could carry far more than a merely practical import.
"Part of Grandpas teaching was gardening. We always had a family garden. If any of us went to the garden to do some watering or hoeing, we could see our efforts bear fruit. That reward also had a spiritual aspect."
Good Seeds isn't a self-help book, however, and once having introduced us to this "philosophy," Weso wisely proceeds to describe various food-related activities on the reservation that he thinks might interest his readers. Here are a few typical remarks:
 "When I was young, I thought a deer was a big animal, but it is not, especially on the reservation. A deer is really a big rabbit. It is tasty, and if a deer is available, it is welcome. Venison stew tastes delicious. But comparatively, it is the runty ungulate after bison, then elk. There was this guy on the rez with a huge appetite who could sit down and eat an entire deer. People did not like hunting with him."
"Bears are another source of meat on the Menominee rez, but I was never much of a bear hunter. I was a good shot, and I did not mind killing a squirrel, a rabbit, or a partridge. Even if it had a soul, it could not be a very big soul. I could not, however, bring myself to kill bear. I did kill one as a young man, and that was enough. It was like killing another man."
"Any time a group of people live together, suddenly there is no firewood within walking distance."
"The body of a beaver is about the size of the body of a white-tail deer...Some people like the taste of beaver, but to me it is less desirable—though it does taste better than muskrat or raccoon."
"On the rez are many edible ferns. Fiddleheads, curled-up shoots of ferns, are not that deli­cious. They are slimy, mucilaginous, and furry. The ostrich fiddle- head fern is edible—not poisonous. I could not eat a pot full."
"Generally blackberries grow where bears live, and there are mosquitoes. All in all, the mosquitoes are worse than the bears."
In his youth, Weso was influenced by the writings of Euell Gibbons, like many other outdoorsy types, including me. "I was from that generation," he says. At another point in the narrative he writes, with both humor and candor:
"This was during President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the era when people were expressing their cultural heritage more readily. Headbands had become a common thing. Anyone with one re­cessive Indian gene wore a headband. Those were the days when I always had a pair of moccasins. From early spring to late fall, I wore only moccasins, not as an expression of culture, but because they were very comfortable."
The portrait he paints of reservation life is relaxed and multifaceted. His grandmother, who also looms large throughout the book, worked in a store from six-thirty a.m. till dark, and often served canned sauerkraut at the dinner table. Though she sometimes reminisced about traditional foraging techniques, she was not nostalgic for those days.
"She would say, Do you want to live in a tipi? Do you want to spend most of the day bringing wood home so you don't freeze to death? Yes, it sounds great, but do you want to do that? Do you want to chase a big animal with a spear?"
In the last two chapters, Weso returns to the family and community life of the reservation, the local fair, the powwow, and the challenges of food storage when serving ten or twenty hungry people daily. In the final chapter he even describes the malevolent spirits that danced on the walls and seemed to live in the furnace room of the family home, which had previously been a jail. He speaks fondly of photos taken of himself outside the house as a young boy, sitting on horseback with Hopalong Cassidy six-shooters hanging from his belt—a gift from his uncle Billy, who was as near to being a father as anyone was. Several times he mentions in passing "when my uncle Billy was murdered" but doesn't elaborate, and it gives an unsettling twist to the notion of "spirit" that has carried us through this generally low-key, heartily sincere, and often delightful book.


Friday, October 14, 2016

Heartland Fall Forum 2016

It was a night full of possibility. Kenny Barron, perhaps the world's foremost lyric jazz pianist, was performing in the intimate confines of the Dakota Jazz Club. Renée Fleming, arguably the world's most stylish and well-loved opera diva, was giving a recital at the Ordway. And Wendell Berry, renowned poet, novelist, and Kentucky land steward, was scheduled to speak at the Heartland Fall Forum, a three-day event at which bookstore owners from Illinois to North Dakota gather to attend workshops and get a close look at the new books being offered by both regional and national publishers.

I opted for Renée, on the strength of free tickets and utter confidence that the show would be grand. It was. (If I'd known my old friend Jane St. Anthony was also going to speak at the Forum I might have reconsidered.)

I did attend the Forum the following morning to help set up the Nodin Press booth and say hi to old friends in the industry.

The day started off well. I ran into Mary Lofgren, manager of the MHS bookstore, in the lobby,  and she asked me, "Do you have a new book coming out this year?" I don't, but it's rare and also sort of pleasant to encounter someone who's aware that I've actually written a few. She was probably wondering why I was there.  

"No," I said, "but Nodin has five or six new titles this fall. Did you know that I design his books?"

"I had no idea," she said. "Then you must have designed my brother-in-law's book, Chester Creek Ravine."

"Yes, I did," I said. "That was a lot of fun. Locating the perfect ginkgo-leaf dingbat, arranging the haiku. Your brother-in-law found a very nice woodcut for the cover. I think he was happy with the final look. And he's a great promoter." My ebullience diminished slightly when I found I couldn't remember her brother-in-law's name.

Norton and I got the posters hung at the booth without difficulty, joking as usual about how precious the little metal hooks we use to mount them on the curtains have become. Only later did I notice that I'd hung our most popular fall title, a collection of gruesome mysteries called Cooked to Death, right next to a poster for our neighbor Llewellyn's book Joyful Living.

Our main task competed, we spent the afternoon chatting with passers-by and wandering the floor. A few visitors were bookstore owners, but more often they were old friends of Norton, including Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Kerlen Collection, retired rep Alex Genis, and Stu Abraham, whose distribution empire occupied the four booths next to ours. Later Lisa's husband, Paul, wandered by with a rep from Penguin, and we got to talking about the German novelist Peter Handke, the heavy security required to have Salmon Rushdie on your frontlist, and the strong poetry culture in Minnesota.

The Penguin rep, who's name I didn't catch, told a story about a Robert Bly reading he went to in New York with a girlfriend once, long ago.

"Bly is really into the body, you know. And when we got back to the car, my girlfriend, who tended to be sort of reserved, started taking off all her clothes, right in the front seat!"

He asked if he could have a copy of the new Nodin Poetry Anthology, and I said sure." I'll swap you something," he said. Deal.

My old colleague Joe Riley from Forty Press ambled up with a grin, saying, "I'm glad I sent you that check before I ran into you."

"Me too." We laughed.

I've designed some covers and formatted quite a few books for Joe and his two colleagues at Forty Press—college buddies from St. John's University, perhaps. They all have day jobs and seem to run their publishing firm mostly via email. I've never met the other two, though Joe used to work with me at Bookmen years ago.

"I sometimes miss those times," Joe said.

"I get together with a few people from time to time," I said. Then I said,  "It's fun doing books with you, Joe. But there's just one thing. I've never actually seen a book by Forty Press."

"I'll send you a couple," he said.

Robert Martin scooted us all out of the exhibition space at 6:30 so they could lock up. Many of the attendees were headed for the dining room, where dinner would soon be served, and four authors were scheduled to speak. (My tastes run so far from the literary mainstream I'd never heard of any of them.) Meanwhile, the nearby hotel bar had already started to fill up.

I had accumulated a few drink tickets by chance but everything turned out to be free. I was standing in line with friends when a waitress came by to take our orders. We waited there for quite a while, unperturbed, discussing kitchen remodeling, as she and other waitresses moved past us several times with platters lined with drinks. 

I believe I saw Don Olson and his wife intercept our chardonnays at one point. Well, I guess that made sense. Don owns a small distribution company dedicated to radical labor literature, and he's probably very comfortable with "share and share alike." I got into the spirit, too, and when a waitress came by with a lonely glass of pinot noir, looking for a taker, I grabbed it.

Kathy Borkowski was of similar mind. She had occupied a "reserved" table—not reserved for us—and while we waited for others to join us she told me about her recent trip to Cuba, where she and a friend stayed in an Air B&B. Capitalism has arrived in a hurry. A good deal of her trip was unexpectedly, but pleasantly, devoted to spontaneous conversations with her neighbors, a gay couple who had silently endured Castro's regime for decades.
Traffic on the floor had been light the previous afternoon, probably because many shop owners had been attending workshops devoted to topics such as "How to Write a Blurb," "Introduction to Edelweiss++," and "Romancing Your Sales."

The next morning things heated up a bit ... but not that much. I was pleased to chat briefly with Ann Lewis, author of Ship Captain's Daughter: Growing Up on the Great Lakes, with whom I worked for a while a few years ago. We're both big fans of Duluth (she's a native) and she told me all about her recent stay at newly-opened Pier B Resort, which is located in the harbor rather than facing the lake. This would be especially appealing to Ann, who used to accompany her dad as he piloted his ore boat out of the harbor, past the lift bridge, and along the south shore of the lake to Sault Ste. Marie and beyond. Occasionally, she helped!

While Ann signed books and chatted with the ore boat aficionados who'd come to get a copy, I spent some time with Kate Thompson, who befriended me years ago when these conventions were held at the Minneapolis Auditorium. 

That friendship took on added dimension this year when Kate introduced me to her poised and articulate daughter, Mia. The three of us engaged in an interesting cross-generational discussion of how English, a subject I studied in high school, has now become Literacy. Before we were through I think we came up with a few good ideas for improving the study of literature and language even further!

I asked Mia if she was enjoying the convention. "I am," she replied. Then she twisted her lip and added, "But I had to bring an awful lot of homework with me. Math!" 

By that time Michael Perry had showed up to sign copies of his new book of essays, Roughneck Grace. During a break in the line I wandered over to his table and we got to talking about Bayfield and especially Washburn—a town we're both fond of. "It has a great used bookstore," I said. "And also that theater-bar."

"Ah, the theater's struggling," he said. "I've done some stand-up shows there. I'm not sure they made the theater space big enough to turn a profit."

"I saw a great film there once," I said. "A one-hour documentary called Fifty Lakes—One Island by a guy named George Desort who kayaked every lake on Isle Royale."

"I know that film," Perry said. "The director used some of my music in it. He sent me a copy."

"What did you think of it?"

"To tell you the truth, I never watched it. People send me stuff all the time, which is nice, I intend to look at them ... I have huge stacks of all kinds of things sitting around."

"Well, you might like that one," I said. Then I told him about the scene where George talks into the camera while he's trying to light his Whisperlight camp stove. As anyone who's owned that stove can attest, it's very easy to let in too much fuel while priming the thing, and that's what George did. When he lit it, the flames leapt about three feet into the air. He continued to talk cheerfully into the camera while a minor conflagration burned itself out in the background.

"That sounds pretty good," he said politely. "I'll have to dig it out of the pile."

Only later did I learn that Perry is writing a book about one of my favorite authors—Montaigne.

Across the way I stopped in at Brett and Sheila Waldman's booth, trimmed down this year but as stylish as ever. I knew they'd been sailing recently on Leech Lake, but we never got around to that subject. Somehow, Sheila and I found ourselves discussing back pain. I'd been nursing a bad back all weekend, having jarred it awkwardly playing tennis, and I was thoroughly hopped up on ibuprophen. But Sheila is far too young (or so it seems to me) to be concerned about such things.

At one point during my rounds Eric Lorberer, the madcap impresario of Rain Taxi magazine, whizzed by.

"Thanks for the books," I said.

"Yeah, a two-for-one deal," he replied with a laugh. I had offered to review The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics by Mark Lilla, for his magazine, and he'd also sent along Lilla's more recent book, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction—the one that really needed to be reviewed.

"I'm still trying to scare up that tree book you requested," he said before he disappeared into the crowd. He was referring to The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. The book was actually sitting on the table over at Perseus Group, but for some reason they wouldn't give it to him.

Many of the interesting small presses are tucked away at simple tables on the east end of the brightly-lit floor, and it was there that I ran into David Godine—both the publisher and the man. Godine got started as a cold type letterpress publisher in the 1970s, I believe, and though the firm has expanded many fold since then, it's still known for its fine typography and high quality printing.

And there, propped upright in the middle of the table, was a book called Palatino: The Natural History of a Typeface by Robert Bringhurst, author of the classic Elements of Typographic Style. I picked it up. 

"That's a good book; best on the table," Godine said.

"And a good font,"  I replied. "Back in the days when a computer came with twelve fonts, Palatino was practically the only one you could use."

"And here's a book about Centaur," he said, pointing to another hardcover sitting on a stand in the second row.

"We recently bought Centaur," I said, considering myself fortunate to have anything to say at all. "Beautiful font. Lots of character."

"It is," he agreed. "Nice ligatures and ornaments, too."

"But," I said, daring to interject a personal observation, "It starts to look a little crinkly in smaller sizes."

"Never use Centaur under 14 points," he advised me in a booming voice.

OK then. (Godine knows his fonts.)

I'm interested in fonts. In fact, I'm currently reading a book called The Crystal Goblet: Sixteen Essays on Typography, by Beatrice Warde. That book came out in 1956, decades before the digital age, so I'm not sure how much good it will do me.  Reading about fonts is largely an exercise in futility in any case. A typical passage might run as follows:
The roman and italic are reserved, elegant and well matched. The axis is humanist, the aperture large, and the serifs simultaneously sharp and flat (a feature neither unwelcome nor contradictory in typography). Small caps and the distinctive text figures, with their short extenders, are essential to the design.
Even looking at a font is problematic at best. Most letters look beautiful when viewed at a large size, in isolation.

Only occasionally do font descriptions make reference to the wider world, as in this passage  from Elements of Typographic Style:
It was widely used at Boston and Philadelphia in the 1790s, and remains useful for period design work, as an alternative to Baskerville. Monotype cut a facsimile in 1931, and this version has been digitized. Bell is somewhat narrower and darker than Baskerville, but it too is an English Neoclassical face. The serifs are very sharp, but the overall spirit is nevertheless closer to brick than to granite, evoking Lincoln’s Inn more than St Paul’s, and Harvard Yard more than Pennsylvania Avenue."
Designers who hang out with other designers no doubt talk about such things all the time. They not only know their fonts, but also know the differences between various iterations of the same font by different foundries. They learn from one another. To a journeyman typesetter like me, the only real questions are, Do I have it? and How does it look on the page? I'm ever-eager to try new fonts but usually find myself returning to a few classics—Garamond, Sabon, Caslon, Galliard.

I thought I might tease some advice out of Godine—a shortcut to typographic wisdom, as it were—so I mumbled something about Apollo and Joanna and then asked him what unusual fonts he might recommend. 

"We stick to a few classic fonts," he said peremptorily. "Occasionally Caslon. Minion. And I like Bell."

The floor show was drawing to a close. It's a time at which many exhibitors become more eager to part with books that are on display to avoid the hassle and expense of shipping them back home to Michigan or New York. I had neither the desire nor the intention to collect a pile of books ... but I'm always looking for ways to help out. As a result, I found myself, as the booths came down, in the possession of several interesting books, including For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the World's Most Ancient Wine Culture by Alice Feiring. I presumed that the book was about ancient Greece, where an acre of grapes (so I informed the rep from the University of Nebraska) would be worth fifty times more than an acre of wheat.

"Well," she replied diplomatically, "this book is about the ancient Georgian practice of vinifying grapes in subterranean clay pots, and how that practice relates to the current interest in organic products. It's part travelogue, part wine study."

Sounds good to me. 

At Graywolf I mentioned to the winsome reps that I had been studying the design of one of their books, some poetry by an Irish guy...

"Eamon Grennan? We have his latest right here." The man gestured for me to take one.

"What else are you particularly excited about?" I said.

"What about that one?" the woman said, pointed to a small stack of books bearing the title Cabo de Gata. A novel, translated from the German.

"Well, for one thing, I've been there," I said. "Southern Spain, Almeria province. Have either of you...?"

They both shook their heads. I proceeded to tell them about the wonderful rock formations overlooking the Mediterranean, the salt farms, the deserted beaches, and the twenty-mile dirt footpath leading east along the cornice to San Juan.

It was five minutes to closing. Trapped behind their exhibit table, there was nothing they could do but smile.

In the end, it was a weekend full of riches: the people, the books, the conversations. For publishers and proprietors alike, an element of commerce can't help but enter the mix of considerations, but it's obvious to me that a simple yet deep-seated love of books, both in themselves and as vessels of expression, communication, and life itself, is generating much of the heat in the room. Long may it burn.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Performance for the Ages—Redman and Mehldau

It was a performance for the ages. Or at the very least (considering I don't go to that many shows) it was the best jazz performance I've seen in a long time.

Two men on stage, piano and reeds, exchanging tunes, ideas, emotions.

At one point Mehldau said with a chuckle, "This duo format is great. I can just leave him hangin'."

But Brad and Joshua were together pretty much throughout the evening, weaving a symbiotic fabric. 

Mehldau never wandered for long into the realms of introspective noodling or flashy polyrhythmic showmanship that he often likes to visit. Nor did Redman indulge in the histrionic shrieking that's been the bane of saxophonists since the mid-sixties.

As I write these words I'm reminded of a show I saw at the old Dakota years ago. Tenor David Murray and his rhythm section blew the roof off the place, in a manner of speaking. But I got the impression that they had come to an aesthetic agreement before the show. "Let's make sure that we're NEVER together, never in the same rhythm or key, never even playing the same song."   

Brad and Josh were together in ways that were musically complex yet entirely accessible. They played a few originals from their new album, Nearness; they played classic tunes by Thelonious Monk ("Let's Call This") and Sonny Rollins ("Avenir"). The played several ballads ("The Nearness of You" and another that I recognized but couldn't pin down).

When the show got started the first thing I noticed was the rich, gorgeous sound coming out of the piano—a sound I've never heard on a stereo. The soprano sax was likewise sublime, reminding me once again of one of the many reasons a live show can be so enriching. Redman's soloing was thoughtful, evenly paced, unhurried, and perhaps even a little tame in the first two numbers. The duo began to swing on the Monk tune, and on the next number (a Mehldau original that Redman was reluctant to say the name of) they were entirely up to speed.

We stayed for the second set, though they moved us to a table under the staircase at the other end of the room. This turned out to be a blessing, as we could now see Mehldau's hands and body language, whereas for the first set we could only see the top of his distant head. As I listened to his complex solos, which grew more dramatic and engaging as the evening wore on, I was occasionally reminded of Stravinsky's fragmented contrapuntal intricacies and the pounding finale to a Prokofiev sonata the name of which I've forgotten.

Though I didn't think of it at the time, in retrospect it strikes me that there was something almost Asian about the evening. Two national treasures were plumbing the depths of the jazz tradition, selflessly keeping a world of melodic improvisation aloft over the course of four hours without fuss, nonsense, or bravado, by combining a limited selection of riffs in ways that were now playful, now tender, now fierce or melancholy .

I had downloaded a few songs from Nearness a few days before the show, and I watched a YouTube video the next morning, but none of that material quite approached the rich sound, intense presence, and  mutual concentration and inventiveness of the real thing.

Besides, when you're on the spot, you have no choice but to listen.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Art from Sweden

We attended a Harvest-fest in the town of Finland, Minnesota, the other day. I don't know what they harvest up there in the woods, and the local band didn't even include an accordion!

Returning home, I found myself briefly immersed in Swedish culture.  

A Man Called Ove, a new film by Hannes Holm based on the (Swedish) best-seller by Fredrik Backman,  tells the tale of an aged grouch at a residential development who is no longer the manager but can't resist criticizing everyone for slight infractions of the compound's rules. His demeanor is dour and his comments are abrasive. Nobody likes him and we don't either. The film is littered with minor domestic incidents, serious accidents, touching moments, a few attempted suicides, and a house fire or two, during which we get to know some of his neighbors at the housing development, and especially an Iranian woman named Parvaneh who blithely ignores his gruff exterior and soon has him babysitting her two young children. We also learn about his long-time friend Rune, with whom Ove had a dispute years earlier that turned into a serious rift. You see, Ove will only drive a Saab, while Rune prefers a Volvo. Interspersed with these episodic scenes are a series of lengthy flashbacks during which we learn something about Ove's early life, and especially how he met his remarkably charming wife Sonja (recently deceased).

It all adds up to an attractive, well-fashioned tale about a fairly unattractive man. He doesn't have a heart of gold, but as it turns out, he does, at least, have a heart.

Hannes Holm was in attendance at the screening, and he said a few words after the film. "I've been hearing about Minnesota since I was a boy," he said at one point, "and now I've finally got here."

He also mentioned that A Man Called Ove ranks as the third-highest grossing Swedish-language film in history.

After the screening I ran into Holm sitting with Susan Smoluchowski and a gentleman in a suit from the American Swedish Institute at a table in front of Pracna on Main and I couldn't help butting in to ask him what the two top-ranking films might be.

"Fanny and Alexander?" No.

"My Life as a Dog?" No.

"Sven Klang's Combo?" NO. But he couldn't remember. I later determined that The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out a Window is tops. But that's as far as I got.

In The Invoice, Swedish novelist Jonas Karlsson presents us with a fable along the lines of Patrick Suskind's The Pigeon and Julien Barnes's The Hedgehog, namely, a short book with a short title and a single guiding concept. Karlsson tries to imagine what it would be like if everyone were billed by an international organization on the basis of the quality of their experiences, rather than their income, with the revenue redistributed to victims of floods, earthquakes, civil disorder, disease, and so on.

The nameless protagonist, whom we'll call Ingvar, is a young single male who lives alone, works part-time in a video shop, and spends his evenings eating take-out food and watching films. His only friend, Roger, stops in at the video store from time to time to help him eat his lunch, but otherwise offers little in the way of conversation or companionship. When Ingvar receives his "bill," he tosses it into the trash. He hasn't paid much attention to the publicity surrounding the government initiative and the sum is absurdly high. After the third or fourth notice arrives, he comes to recognize that the bill is actually meant for him, but he's confident there's been some mistake, and he spends the rest of the book trying to find out what's really going on.

This quest soon leads to a contact in the bureau named Maud, with whom Ingvar spends lots of time on the phone—to his delight. He also makes several visits to bureau headquarters, where executives attempt to demonstrate, using psychological profiles and a bulging file of data regarding the details of his private life, that Ingvar's been a lot happier than he thinks over the years. The time has come to pay up.

Trouble is, Ingvar hasn't got any money. He makes an  effort to recall distressing and hitherto overlooked episodes in hopes of getting his bill renegotiated, but when the facts are fed into the relevant algorhythms, the invoice only climbs higher.

There is a certain mild interest to the concept undergirding this narrative. It raises interesting questions about the degree to which status, money, and social engagement relate to happiness. But Ingvar's telephone conversations with his caseworker, Maud, are what keep the story lively. Karlsson weaves in one or two details from Ingvar's film-watching life to add complexity to this budding relationship, and it saves the book in a way I wouldn't want to describe here.

In the end, many readers will remain unconvinced that Ingvar is really all that happy. If not, then somebody did make a mistake. And in any case, why should someone have to pay for having been born with a copacetic disposition? Wouldn't it be better to assign him some sort of community service, considering that money doesn't seem to buy happiness anyway?         

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

U.S. Open—Stan the Black Socks

Tennis is as much about personality as it is about performance. We like one player or another ... just because. Many fell in love with Roger Federer due to his suavity—not to mention his skills on the court. And many took to Nadal because of his boyish determination. Murray developed a small following due to his Scottish working-class grimacing and grit. And Djokovic ... I'm not sure the fans have ever really warmed to him much.

I had the pleasure of watching quite a few matches during the U.S. Open, due to the fact that I have some free time and the matches are broadcast for free online at  Even the top matches, normally reserved for paying subscribers to ESPN, could be viewed free if you were willing to hear the commentary in Spanish or turn off the sound.

Taking advantage of this avenue of ingress, I got to know an entirely new tier of athletes, including the Australian Kyrgios, whom I would call "the slouch." It's well-known that he doesn't really like to play tennis and would quit if he happened to win a three-million-dollar jackpot. 

The Canadian Roanic was forced to retire early in the tournament due to illness, but I had already pegged him as a rising force—a clean-cut, good-natured player with an odd, wavy head of thick black hair and a strangely robotic serve who was dedicated to improving from match to match. (He's currently ranked 6th or 7th in the world, so there is nothing astonishingly astute in my assessment.)

The match between Nadal and the unheralded Frenchman Pouille was a masterpiece, or an agonizing slog. Most of the crowd expected that the ever-tenacious but aging Nadal would somehow pull it out, and he was ahead 4-2 in the fifth set, but Pouille hung in there and won the final tie-breaker 7-5. He never faltered, never lost his nerve, and in the end, he played the better match.

Pouille lost in the next round to fellow-Frenchman Monfils, a goofball if ever there was one. I didn't see that match. But I did watch Monfils lose to Djokovic. Hot and humid, both players were exhausted by the third set. Monfils had decided to counter Djokovic's all-embracing skill-set with slice backhands and other disconcertingly tame responses, and he actually won a set by such means. 
But Djokovic adjusted his game and cleared the table in four.

Coming into the final, Stan Wawrinka had played roughly twice as much tennis as Novak Djokovic. Was that good or bad? Djokovic was the obvious favorite, but Warinka had one remarkable statistic in his favor: he rarely reached a final, but once he had done so, his record was 10-0.

Wawrinka is a sort of bizarro counterpart to his countryman Federer. He isn't suave—though both players use a one-handed backhand (like me). He sports a three-day beard. His nose is red, his shirt is a garish purple, and his shoes and his socks are black. Ugg! In short, he looks sort of like a flat-footed clod. But by all accounts, he's very modest—a true gentleman—and he displayed that noble character in his acceptance speech after winning the match.

So, Wawrinka ought to be the Everyman tennis hero. He's won three slams, the same as Murray—though also the same as Adrian Quist, James Anderson, Gerald Patterson, Norman Brookes, Gustavo Kuerten, Jan Kodes, Jaroslav Drobny, Arthur Gore, Wilfred Baddeley, Ellsworth Vines, Jack Kramer, Neale Fraser, William Johnston, Malcolm Whitman, and Oliver Campbell. (My first "good" racket was a Wilson 'Jack Kramer.')

Wouldn't it be nice if even more journeyman players broke into the ranks of the Grand Slam elite?

But watching the matches more closely on ESPN3 reminds me that nothing is given, nothing is assured, and the numbers you read in the morning paper—6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2—are far less than a skeleton of the energy expended on EVERY SINGLE POINT. 

The players on the court know this.

In the U.S. Open final, Wrawrinka won by three sets to one. But in the aggregate,  he won only one more point than Djokovic, 144 to 143. The clincher lay in break points—where you have the opportunity to win a game when your opponent is serving. Wawrinka won 6 of 10 (amazing). Djokovic won only 3 of 17 (very poor indeed).

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Our State Fair

Cool dry air and an early arrival made this the most colorful state fair in recent memory. Luminescent green, orange, yellow, blue, and  red summer outfits, not to mention the balloons and jew jaws for sale at the souvenir stands.

There was no line at the Larpenteur lot when we arrived at 8:30, and we got a huge entry discount just for showing a library card.  

From the northern entry you can start the day with a visit to the antique tractors followed by an order of walleye cakes at Giggle's Campfire Grill; walk through Ron Sharra's nearby north woods t-shirt shop for a bit more outdoor ambiance, and then head over to the Art Building, which has just opened and is not yet crammed with people.

Fantasy artworks in pastel colors are long out of fashion, and so, it seems, are enormous collages made of images cut from old glossy magazines. Images of old junk cars and grain elevators seem also to have lost their caché, though you're still going to see many carefully wrought images of mournful or frisky pets, photos of collapsing barns and farmhouses, and self-portraits of troubled individuals of every age and gender. No art show would be complete without a few complex watercolors of flowers, and also one or two with less conventional subjects, such as this year's "De-icing the Delta 747."

Perhaps the most effective of the "concept" pieces was a sculpture of a reclining woman crafted entirely from piano parts (see above). Two of the black-and-white photos that made the cut were interesting in part simply because they were so big. One, maybe 4 x 4 feet, was an image of a cliff and beach on the North Shore, sort of close up. The other, roughly the same size, was a photo taken at ground level of a little girl drawing something in chalk on the sidewalk in from of First Avenue in memory of Prince. Both photos had wonderful clarity, contrast, and balance.

There were also two large aerial color photos of winter scenes in which the snow formed a uniform white background against which very small figures were ice fishing or dragging inner tubes up a hill. The patterns were as interesting as the perspective. But would that interest last?

The things I liked most tended to be free and easy, unconcerned with perfection or scope or clever concept. Here are a few examples, marred by reflections from the glass.

The pastel "Evanescence" by John A. Finkler was a breath of fresh air after a long wall of serious and meticulous pieces.

The photo "Tape Traces" by Paul W. Stapp had "depth" -- that is, the depth between the window glass with tape and the curtain behind it, which was a lovely pale green that doesn't reproduce well here.

A crow by Stanley Leonard was one of several nice woodcuts in the show.

"Lap Swimmer" by Mary Scrimgeour was simple but not dull. The sky, the water, the building facade, the palms all have character and dimension. And it could be hanging in your sun room for $1800.

And this rich pastel by Lisa Staufer also caught my eye -- especially the pale green on the details just under the roof-line. (I'm sure there's an architectural term for that.)

I liked this photo of a tackle-box by Steve Lang, just because. And I don't even fish!

And this watercolor by Susan Rupp caught my eye, and held onto it.

There were 126,354 people at the fair the day we went, so I guess it's not surprising that we ran into a few that we knew. We chatted with Lucinda Anderson in the Education Building, where she was tending the Montessori booth. She filled us in on a few of her daughter's adventures as a fledgling music producer in New Orleans. And down at the MELSA booth in front of the grandstand we said hi to Barb Taylor and Loretta Garrity, old colleagues and friends of Hilary's. 

An hour later, we bumped into another buddy, Dave Stevens, in the Agriculture Building. He was escorting an old family friend from Switzerland out of the Minnesota brewery wing of the spoke-like building, I think. They were feeling jolly as we shared our latest Scandinavian literary enthusiasms, and I urged him to acquaint his Swiss friend with the local crop art on display down another wing nearby. They don't make things like that in Zurich, I think.

The music wasn't bad. We listened to a trio from the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra play a sprightly piece by Haydn and an astringent but interesting arrangement of Hungarian folk tunes by Zoltan Kodály in from of the grandstand. The Villa-Lobos number didn't fare well in the gusty weather and we moved on to the chicken barn and the all-you-can-drink milk truck. It used to be a quarter; now it's $2! 

A few minutes later we found some shade on a covered swing where we were joined by a salesman from Paso Robles, California. He told us all about the fairs in Texas and California, and about how the company got started, before finally letting us know—well, that was his job—that the swing we were sitting on cost $2699. "At our first fair, in Reno, we sold seven in a week and thought we were riding high," he said. "Here it wouldn't be unusual for us to sell fifty in a day."

We ambled up the hill to the Leinenkugel Lodge Bandshell in time to hear some Texas Swing performed by the Quebe Sisters. We also caught a ballad or two by the Irish Brigade at nearby International Market Square. At the other end of the long covered bazaar a young man was playing Russian folk tunes on an accordion he could hardly lift.

And then we went home. With a brief stop in the Food Building for a tasty fish taco along the way.

I have condensed six hours of rambling here into a few rambling paragraphs, neglecting to mention the political booths, the handicraft building, the rock display at the geological society booth, the stuffed animals in the DNR building, or the wonderful Eco-building, where well-informed state employees and volunteers told us about air quality issues and the little bugs that thrive in clean water. One woman there recommended that we prune the dead branches out of our maple trees. Another recommended that we clean out our chimney, which hasn't received much attention in thirty years.

Good idea.