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—and to several visits to bureau headquarters, where executives attempt to demonstrate, using psychological profiles and a vast 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 how well 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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Summer Reading

"In a way, all writing is essay writing."  I came upon that remark a few weeks ago in an essay  in the New York Times. It wasn't the main point of the article, and I don't think it's true, but it struck me because I have found myself in recent months enjoying what little fiction I read less because of the events being depicted, which tend to be romantic and predictable, than because of the personality of the narrator or the moods and opinions offered up along the way by the author or the protagonist.  

A few examples: In Shyness and Dignity, by Dag Solstad, the protagonist Elias Rukla gives us an acute description of what it's like to teach the Norwegian classics to a room full of teenagers who take little interest in Ibsen and seem to resent being lectured to by a late-middle-aged man who lacks charisma or "relevance." Rukla considers himself a solid, well-informed citizen serving his country by working to develop the moral character of its youth, but the thought gives him little satisfaction because he can't convince himself that anyone is actually listening to what he's saying.

The portrait Solstad draws of the disintegration of Rukla's character rang true to me, because it reminded me of English teachers I had in junior high—mild-mannered men who had obviously been moved by literature at one time or another, and had chosen to teach it as a means of remaining involved in the field while also passing the torch to a new generation that, then as now, wasn't terribly interested in accepting it.
Along the way Rukla also delivers some interesting insights into The Wild Duck and the pernicious effects of television. He attempts to explain why he can now find satisfaction only in long novels of the WWI era—Proust, Mann, Musil, et. al. A large part of the narrative is devoted to Rukla's best friend, a dynamic and widely-loved student of philosophy with a brilliant future who marries and then abandons the woman whom Rukla later took as his wife.

It's a pathetic story, really, full of lofty ideals besmirched, relationships of convenience rather than deep affection, and too much aquavit in the evening. It's interest is sustained far more by Rukla's interior monologues—his ideas, impressions, anxieties—than by his fate. 

Example two: Hot Milk

You've got to love a novel set in the Almería province of southern Spain. A woman has arrived with her daughter to consult Dr. Gomez, a famous specialist, about her lameness. It's a fool's errand, in so far as the woman is only lame some of the time. The story is told by the daughter, Sofia, a young woman with a degree in anthropology and no life to speak of, other than that of handmaiden to her mother. On the beaches near where they're staying she falls into the orbit of a young German couple and also that of a young Spanish man who tends the booth where people stung by the jellyfish can get treatment. (She gets stung often.) Her big ambition is to free the feral dog that barks incessantly from a rooftop nearby.

Sofia's days consist of swimming, trips to the clinic with her mother, and encounters with her German woman friend and Dr. Gomez's daughter (who works at the clinic)—and also with the jellyfish (which the Spanish call medusas.) Dr. Gomez is a remarkable eccentric. Sofia has trouble determining if he's a Zen master or a quack, and so do we, but he adds a lively element to the drama.

Just when things threaten to get dull, Sofia travels to Greece to visit her long-estranged father and meet her half-sister and step-mother, who's only five years older than her.

It's a crisp, intelligent, funny, and forlorn narrative that's going nowhere. Is Sofia's mother using her lameness to keep her daughter nearby, after having been abandoned by her husband decades earlier?  Or is it the other way around, with Sofie using her mother as an excuse to avoid growing up? It hardly matters. What makes the book interesting is Sofie's descriptions of a surreal landscape and the bizarre events, with obscure but complicated and often interlocking motives, that she becomes involved in there.    

Example three: Pond

This collection of "stories" is actually a collection of interior monologues, and though the speakers, settings, and time frames differ, they all sound roughly similar in tone—at least to me they do. Absolutely. The narrator is female, scattered, depressed, equivocal, observant, conversational, and often funny. She has an earthy perspective on life and an impressive vocabulary, is prone to occasional flights of metaphysics and paranoia, has trouble remembering things, obsesses about trivialities, and yet retains our interest through page after page of seemingly random and repetitive musings by means of an artfully varied succession of precise images, naked thoughts, and abject vulnerability.

In short, we come to like her and wonder where she's going to wander next, whether she'll ever remember what she was going to tell us about in the first place, and whether she'll succeed in bringing things to a close with even an iota of logic or coherence. Invariably, she does.

One "story" deals with a dinner party during which the hostess becomes obsessed with who will sit on the ottoman. Another deals with a sickly woman who goes out for an evening walk wearing only a raincoat over her nightgown, sees a man approaching, fears that she's going to be raped, but in a slightly bemused and detached way, then gets distracted by the movement of a herd of cows in a nearby field.

Here's a description of a young woman taking down Christmas decorations. A little long, I'm afraid, but I can't think of a way to convey the flavor of the language and the mercurial shifts in focus in a shorter excerpt.

Hard to tell this time of year how long anything is going on for and for that reason I took it upon myself to intervene now and then, such as when, just two days after Christmas, I avouched enough was enough and promptly took down the decorations. I didn’t have a tree, just some things arranged along the mantel, holly and so on, but since it’s a large mantel it is something of a feature and therefore very noticeable and I’d made it particularly resplendent and was first of all very pleased with how it all turned out. Even so, it quickly became oppressive actually and the holly itself almost sort of evil, poking at the room like that with its creepy way of making contact with the air, no I didn’t like it one bit so a week went by and then it was all got rid of in a flash. The holly I flung directly into the fire beneath, and it was a young fire because this happened even before breakfast and as such the impatient stripling flames went crazy with the holly, consuming it so well, so pleasingly—I was enormously pleased in fact and shoved in branch after branch even though the flames were becoming really tall and very bright and the holly gasped and crackled so loudly. That’s right, suffer, I thought, damn you to hell—and the flames sprouted upwards even taller and brighter and made the most splendid gleeful racket. Burn to death and damn you to hell and let every twisted noxious thing you pervaded the room with go along with you, and in fact as it went on burning I could feel the atmosphere brightening. I won’t do it again, I thought, I won’t have it in the house again. And I recalled the sluggish misgivings I’d felt when the man took the money out of my hand and held up a tethered bundle of muricated sprigs for me to somehow take hold of in return. Standing there, with this dreadful trident, while his young son maneuvered a small hand around a grim bag of change. The whole thing was sullied and I remember at the time feeling faintly that I should just leave it but then I located the cause of that regrettably irresolute sensation to an area in me where snobbery and superstition overlap most abominably and I chided myself for being so affected and fey—what are you some sort of overstrung contessa, I thought—certainly not, then wish them well and get going. And off down the Street I bobbed, yet, anachronistic feelings of pity and repulsion notwithstanding, I had a very clear sense of having succumbed to something I was not entirely at ease with...

Example four: So Long. See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell.

This classic story of infidelity and murder in the Ohio farm country isn't nearly as grisly or erotic as the opening phrase of this sentence might suggest. The story is told mostly from the point of view of one of the farmers' sons, and the great event that lies at the heart of it isn't the murder or the infidelity. Rather, it's the fact that the narrator, years later, passed his childhood friend in the hall of an urban school and didn't say hello. And most of the novel's interest, at least for me, lies not in the pathos of how domestic relationships in hardscrabble rural lives unravel, but in the evocative youthful descriptions of what it's like to grow up on a farm.

So. Have I proved my point? Is all writing essay writing? Not really. Essays tend to be driven by a point or a purpose that's more or less explicit. Once we've discounted the twist and turns of the plot, the appeal of fiction lies in its flavor and incidental detail—elements that the typical essay contains only to a degree at best.

I've been reading a set of brilliant essays by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called The Language of Passion, and I'd like to go into it a bit, but I'm afraid this entry is getting a little long.

The larger statement from which my introductory quotation was lifted is beautiful, and it takes us beyond the conventional essay form, I think:      

In a way, all writing is essay writing, an endless attempt at finding beauty in horror, nobility in want — an effort to punish, reward and love all things human that naturally resist punishments, rewards and love. It is an arduous and thankless exercise, not unlike faith in God. Sometimes, when you are in the act of writing, you feel part of a preordained plan, someone else’s design. That someone else might as well be God. And then one day you rear back and survey everything you have done, and think, Is this all God had in mind? But it’s all you got.

Here Roger Rosenblatt is exploring the inadequacy that even accomplished writers feel when they take a backward glance at their "body" of work. It's an interesting theme, well handled, and it makes me mildly curious to read something else he's written. Checking the library catalog on line, I see he's published several collections of essays, and also a few novels.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

BWCA - Always Something New

Every August we head north to the border country. We try to leave the house early—say 8:15—and pick up a sandwich at the Northern Waters Smokehaus in Duluth, having previously purchased a huge bag of chips at a gas station. A half-hour later it's a quick picnic on the billion-year-old lava flows at Gooseberry Park. At the ranger station in Tofte we watch the obligatory video about wilderness manners--approved methods of gathering firewood, picking up twisties left by your boorish predecessors at the campsite, and filtering the water (we never do). Finally we hit the lake. It's ten minutes to three. Not bad!

A slight wind at our back, easy paddling up the lake for an hour, familiar scenes, the bay where we saw the moose in the distance, the rocky channel where we sometimes bang the canoe. Utter peace and quiet, though another canoe has been moving slowly up the far side of the lake. We might be traveling at two miles an hour, sitting erect in the canoe, rhythmically stroking. There is no faster way to do it, and anyway, who would want to?

The big question is, which (if any) campsites will be open on the north end?

There's a nice one just beyond the narrows, a mile and a half up the lake, but some kids are swimming there, and a woman is leaning against a rock as if she's posing for a travel brochure circa 1925. I was tempted to shout out: "Are you guys camping there?" but it looked pretty obvious, though I never caught sight of a tent.

There was smoke rising from the trees at the campsite behind the island on the west shore. Soon a tent came into view at the classic rock-shelf site in the middle of the upper arm. We continued north to the campsite in the shallow bay where the creek comes out, along the way glancing through a channel with binoculars to verify that the premier campsite in the east bay was occupied. (It was.)

The site we were headed for was a good one, and it proved to be open. Hallelujah!

It's true, we camped here for three days two years ago, due to the fact that our canoe sprang a leak. It would have been nice to have a new point of perspective on the lake. But I'm not complaining. If all the campsites in the vicinity had been filled, it would have been another half-hour of paddling (mostly in the opposite direction) to reach another one.

When you reach camp that first night, the subliminal fog of campsite anxiety lifts. It feels good to be back in the North Woods, and this campsite holds a lot of memories. A moose once appeared in the creek right behind the tent at sunset, right there. Four loons cavorted in the mist one morning, right there in the bay. A beaver once swam right up to shore while we were sitting nearby reading, just to see who was there.       

This time the great event turned out to be overhead. We had eaten a freeze-dried dinner (some sort of lasagna) and I then made a fire to keep us amused until the moon came up. Darkness descended, the moon rose but was still obscured by the trees, and three bright stars appeared low in the southern sky. It was obvious to me that several of them were planets. One was a huge, red, shimmering orb; the second, maybe ten degrees to the east, was also red and shimmering, though smaller. A third "star," white rather than red, was fifteen degrees above that second star, forming a brilliant triangle that you don't normally see in that part of the night sky.

I tried to remember what I'd read back home in my daily online astronomy report. Something about Saturn reversing direction, though I couldn't remember the details or the technical terms. Suddenly it occurred to me that I was looking at the constellation Scorpio. So that huge red "star" might well be Antares. But it was much bigger than usual, Maybe a planet was directly in front of it?

Such speculations ended in a resolve to "look it up when we get home." At the time, the sight itself was mysterious, awesome. A portent? Not likely. But it looked thrilling framed by pines in a southern sky that had not yet grown dark.

(I did look it up when we got home. The huge red twinkling orb was Mars. The smaller red orb was Antares. The bright white "star" above was Saturn.)

As the moon rose above the trees, the campsite was bathed in moonlight. The fire was still doing well, and we nursed the remaining wood to keep it alive as long as possible.

At times like this, it's enough just to stand in the dark and look at the fire or the sky and listen to nothing. But as we stood there, I heard something moving through the woods on the other side of the bay. It wasn't the frisky hops of a squirrel, which can sound like the approach of a much larger mammal. It wasn't as dramatic as the thrashing, crashing sounds of a moose that's rubbing velvet off his antlers, moaning all the while.

This was a leafy, dragging sound, followed by a soft "fuff, fuff, fuff, fuff."

"What the hell is that!" I said.

"That sounds like a beaver gnawing on a tree," Hilary said. In the dark? The guy must have been hungry.
Soon I heard a second sound coming from the same direction, like the muted moan of a human baby crossed with the meow of a cat. Again and again. Was this a juvenile beaver saying, 
"Come on, Mom, let's go home"?

These are the little things that you remember from a canoe trip. Also, the explosion of mushrooms on a portage trail, the incessant cheeping from the spruce trees near camp that turn out to be a family of myrtle warblers, the sunsets that you watch for an hour, taking note of each subtle change in illumination until the entire world goes dark and all you've got is your flashlight.

We make camp early and read in the afternoon. It's important to bring several books--not necessarily about "nature." On this trip my little BWCA library consisted of The Unwritten Philosophy by F.M. Cornfield; So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell; A Little Misunderstanding of No Importance, by Antonio Tabucchi; and a Penguin anthology, A Book of English Essays.

I read Oliver Goldsmith's description of an evening at Vauxhall Gardens. And I read Richard Smoley's description of his years as a student at Oxford in a book called The Dice Game of Shiva. I read a story by Tabucchi called "Bitterness and Clouds." But I didn't read much.

After spending four or five hours in the sun, I'm more likely to be listening to the canoe rattling against the rocks as it bobs in the wind. It isn't a soothing sound. The gentle lapping of the waves against the aluminum is pleasant, but the metal clanging lightly against the rock is less so. If I was up at the campsite, I'd be looking down toward the landing from time to time to see if the canoe was floating away.

We saw a vole run across the path one afternoon. And on another occasion a huge blue dragonfly landed on the leg of my shorts and clung there so long, seemingly quite content, that I decided I'd walk over to the pack, get out my camera, and take a picture. After three or four steps he took off. But I thank him for the visit.

On our second day we portaged in to Burnt Lake. Something new. The water there is green, rather than blue. The lake is 23 feet deep at its deepest point. (I looked it up later). It's a decent lake, but not a great lake. We secured the last open campsite at 11:30 in the morning. Four hours later two canoes went by. There was nothing down that way except a single campsite, out of sight behind a reedy island but already occupied by two fishermen and their three sons.

Later I saw the two canoes coming back up the far side of the bay, maybe 500 yards away. I had difficulty imagining where they were going to spend the night.

A noisy and aggressive red squirrel had gnawed through the canvas of our food pack, which we'd left lying on the ground. I hung it by a rope from a tree branch and five minutes later I noticed he'd shimmied down the rope and was gnawing away again. We kept that pack in the tent that night. (A calculated risk ... but we haven't encountered a bear up here in thirty years.)

Around dinnertime a storm approached. The clouds were magnificent. Sunlight penetrated the wall of rain from the side, turning it into a golden curtain.

On our third day we came upon a magnificent campsite on the NW arm of Sawbill Lake. (If you know the area, you can see we're just puttering around.) What makes a campsite magnificent? Lots of rocks, open space, shade...and three rock-shelf reading rooms facing south onto the lake.

The swimming here was grand.

In late afternoon we took a short portage and then paddled up the Kelso River, which was utterly still and beautiful as the air got cooler and the shadows from the west shore grew longer.

Our camp stove had quit working, but we scraped together enough wood without working too hard to heat a pot of water, and we fixed a simple meal. It came in a foil bag and was called "Wild Thyme Turkey" but there was no thyme in it. I'm not sure there was any turkey. It consisted of a soupy stew with chewy TVP-like bits, half-cooked peas, isolated pieces of wild rice that had never opened...and so on. All the same, it was hot and it tasted good enough.

There were four loons out in the bay--two adults and two juveniles, all of them the same size. We sat watching them move silently across the water as we ate our meal. One of the adults occasionally extended his neck at an awkward angle and emitted a loud plaintive call.

 The North Woods is like a deck of cards: always the same, yet always dealing out something new.  

Monday, August 15, 2016

On the Fringes of the Fringe Fest

I like the new Fringe Fest concept: buy a wrist band for $16.00 and you're into every show you want to see on that particular day (presuming it doesn't sell out). After you've seen one, why not see another one?

Our attention was focused on the production of Orpheus and Eurydice by Garden of Song Opera at the Mixed Blood Theater. It  takes a lot from Gluck's opera of 1762 but also quite a bit from Shelly Duvall's Fractured Fairy Tales. It's a good mix.

Until the explosion of interest in Baroque opera a few decades ago (Explosion? How about an occasional tremor?) Orpheus and Eurydice was the oldest opera to be performed regularly, and it still is. It has some of the aristocratic languor that fell from favor during the classical period...but not too much of it. The drama moves ahead, the story-line is simple, and the melodies are lovely. In fact, although the work is never dull, the tunes are so uniformly pleasant that I had to ask myself several times, during the Fringe performance, whether a vocalist was singing the same aria she'd sung before.

The three voices (mezzo Sara Fanucchi, coloratura soprano Betsie Feldkamp, soprano Carmelita Guse) were uniformly strong, and also varied in timbre to match the roles. The use of piano accompaniment was strangely effective, and the removal of an hour of the music and dance from the original opera didn't affect the storyline much. There was passion and humor, torment and dejection, but also sight-gags and theatrical hijinks here and there to keep the audience amused. 

Orpheus finds a first-aid kit in his satchel. Cupid tippy-toes effortlessly across the stage with arms raised like a ballerina.

More important than anything is the fact that the music shines through.

In Gluck's opera (spoiler alert!) Orpheus succeeds, with Cupid's help, in bringing Eurydice back from the underworld. In most versions of the original Greek myth, he looks back at the last minute and she returns to the land of the dead once and for all. Then he goes crazy with sorrow and is ripped to shreds by wild animals.
Gluck's version is romantic. But is it shallow? The Greek version is darker and more fatalistic. But does the turn of events actually mean anything?

No one seems to know. Both Freud and Jung took a shot at meaning, but both fell well short of coming to grips with the central issue, which doesn't involve Orpheus or Eurydice at all. The central question is, why did Hades insist that Orpheus never look back? Is this a love story or a contest between Orpheus (the greatest musician in history) and Eurydice (which means "wide justice")?

Or does it come down to the fact that at a critical juncture, the great musician flubbed his timing?

Plenty of ink has been spilled on the issue.  I've been perusing (alongside my Ovid, Calasso, and Robert Graves) a book called Orpheus: the Song of Life, by Ann Wroe. She examines the musician's character from every angle and considers every source and variation from Homer to Jean Cocteau—who made a film version of the story, complete with beatniks, mirrors, and limousines. But Wroe is content to present us with alternative interpretations based on wide-ranging research, trusting in her open, speculative approach and limpid prose to obscure the fact that she never really arrives at a conclusion about the meaning of this or any other tale in which Orpheus is involved.

Well, I can live with the mystery, though I also enjoy a happy ending.

From the Mixed Blood Theater we wandered over to the U of M's Barker dance studio to see a performance called The Seven-Colored Bird. This, too, had a mythic story-line, both more modern and more primitive than the opera we'd just seen. The narrator (whose text could easily have been edited down a bit) kept harping on death, which lurks in the shadows, as he told a tale of mother-daughter rivalry, a journey to repair a broken vase past trees without fruit and oceans without fish. The story was grim but the dancing was robust, as the young and agile traveler was initially transfixed by, and then threatened by, the elements she met one after the other. In each case she escapes, and also offers to help these unhappy creatures bear fruit.

I especially liked the ocean dancers in their frothy turquoise gowns. The seven-colored bird (played as a unit by three dancers) was impressive but malevolent—I think that was the idea. There were interesting hand gestures and quite a bit of rolling around on the floor. The soundtrack consisted of a succession of pop tunes performed by radically different artists, each with a distinct sound and energy. Yet the mash-up worked.  

Now thoroughly in the mood, we stuck around for one last dance performance in the same theater called Life, Beautiful. Here the dancing was more precise, perhaps, and the dancers more lithe, but the first three pieces took me back to the days of the Danny Kaye Show: plastic smiles, "jazzy" steps, expert but heartless movement. A few of the subsequent numbers had depth: sorrow, carrying each other around, climbing aboard the body, heavy on the strings.

There was too much going on in the Cities last week:not only the week-long Fringe Fest, but the Early Music Fest, the Source Song Fest, the Irish Fest. On Sunday afternoon we attended a free piano recital associated with the Polish Fest at St. Anthony Main at which Michael Lu absolutely killed Prokofiev's Seventh Piano Sonata. And a very young performer named Madeline Pape brought some depth of feeling to a Rachmaninoff prelude, too.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

In Praise of Meadowlands, Minnesota

Minnesota is famous for its North Woods, a biome that it shares with no other state. It's also a midwestern agricultural powerhouse—a less distinctive quality it shares with Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

But between these two zones there's a region that's not much good for farming, has no valuable mineral deposits, and also lacks the exposed bedrock and countless pristine lakes that make the border country so appealing. It tends to be boggy or sandy, and if there were any marketable trees in the vicinity, they're long gone.

Places like Meadowlands.

But perhaps I'm only thinking of Meadowlands because I like the name, and I went there yesterday.

Meadowlands (population 143) lies south of Hibbing (but not on the Iron Range) east of Grand Rapids (though it's not a big lumbering center), and west of Duluth (but without a hint of Lake Superior glamour). It was once the headquarters of the Schniedermann Furniture company, but no longer. It's not on any major highway, and although there's a sign pointing the way at the turnoff from Highway 73, just north of Floodwood, the next two or three intersections aren't marked, so if you're heading that way, I strongly recommend bringing along a good map.

You might also want to bring some snacks. The town's only restaurant, the Trailside Bar and Grill, looks a little shaky to me. (Though it gets a few good reviews on Yelp!)  

Nowadays Meadowlands is famous largely as the conurbation closer than any other to the Sax-Zim Bog.

The Sax-Zim Bog is well-known in birding circles are the best place in the lower 48 states to see boreal species such as the great grey owl, the boreal chickadee, the spruce grouse, and the hawk owl, and also such elusive species as the le Conte sparrow and the Connecticut warbler. Every winter people show up from Florida, California, and Texas hoping to add to their life lists. Sometimes they hire a guide from Duluth to make sure they do.

We had no intention of going to Meadowlands when we left the house. Our chosen destination was Savannah Portage State Park, which is located nearby in a hardly less obscure part of the state.

Two hundred and fifty years ago Savannah Portage was a six-mile slog through a swamp from a pathetic tributary of the St. Louis River to a feeble tributary of the Mississippi. It was used by the voyageurs to move trade goods and furs back and forth from the Great Lakes into the watershed of the Mississippi. Researchers today have trouble determining exactly where it went, which isn't that surprising: a muddy trail through the reeds can vanish almost overnight, and in this part of the world the fur trade was largely over by 1820. All the same, the upland sections have been charted and turned into a hiking trail.

The park is sort of like the portage—remote, obscure, under-appreciated. But there are four or five  lakes within its border and many miles of hiking trails across eskers, moraines, and other hilly glacial debris.

Before leaving the house I checked to park's website. At that time there were four campsites open along the lakefront, and I reserved the one that, judging from the rudimentary map, was near the lake and had a lot of unoccupied real estate on its northern flank. What I imagined would be a thick privacy belt turned out to be an open, grassy sward leading down to the fishing dock. Oops!

Yet the site turned out to be wonderful. A few people passed by with fishing poles in the course of the afternoon. And two young girls (age 12, Hilary took a guess) came and went several times,  playing some plasticized ball game in the field sloping down toward the lake. We were also out and about ourselves, circumnavigating the lake in a canoe, and later swimming at another of the park's several lakes, where we met a young couple and their adopted son. The day was very hot, and the water was pleasantly cold.

After dinner we sat on the bench looking out past the dock toward the opposite shore. The girls were goofing around on the dock, and they squealed with delight when they spotted a large snapping turtle swimming around in the shadows  underfoot.

Then a man from Brainerd showed up with his granddaughter, and gave us the low-down of what had been going on in the campground in the last few days.

"You should go down and see the snapping turtle," I said. "We haven't seen it, but we've heard several reports."

The mother of the two girls crossed the field in front of us, heading for the dock. All three of them said hi as they made their way back to their campsite across the grass. The two girls reappeared ten minutes later and came over to our bench. One of them said, "I took a video of the turtle. Do you want to see it?"  

That was sweet. Of course we did.

As dusk descended, we went out onto the dock ourselves, where a couple we hadn't seen before  was standing around.

"You aren't the people we saw fishing this afternoon when we were out in the canoe?" I asked.

"No. We're from Pipestone," the woman said.  She was pregnant. He was standing a good ways off, leaning on the rail, smoking a thin cigar.

"People were seeing a big snapper under the dock," I said. "But it's too dark to see much now."

"Is the water clear here?" she asked." Where we come from, all the lakes are green."

To make them feel more at home, I said, "We were in Pipestone just a month ago. We went to the Monument. Ate lunch at Leng's."

Then I said, "Do you hear that chattering, rattling sound on the far side of the lake? That's a kingfisher."

"And what's that sound?" the man asked, smiling but unsure of himself,  as a big belch spread over the lake.

"That's a frog," Hilary said.

"Have you ever heard a loon?" I asked.

"No," the woman said.

"Well, you'll hear one tonight. It sounds like this." And I gave my best fluttering cupped-hand loon call. (Quite good, though it doesn't really sound like a loon.)

"We're camping here 'til Sunday," the woman said. That struck me as a long time to spend at one little state park.

"Then you should go to Duluth!" I practically exclaimed. "It's only an hour away. Have you ever seen Lake Superior?"

"I haven't. He has."

Holy Christ.

With all the coming and going, it was like a little lo-key party down on the fishing dock. I wanted to point out a few more bird calls, to make them feel more at home in the woods, but at that late hour nothing was singing.

We climbed the little hill back to our campsite, and when we crawled into the tent the sky was clear and the lake was calm. The thunderstorm arrived about three a.m. 

The roiling thunder was loud, hissing and grumbling its fierce and bizarre locutions. Flashes of lightning illuminated the tent, though it seemed few bolts of lightning were hitting the ground—it was mostly cloud to cloud. I counted the seconds between lightning and thunder. Five. The raind started to come harder but the center of the storm was probably miles away.

We weren't exactly scared, but during our time in the park we'd seen many trees that had been mercilessly twisted and snapped or ripped up root and branch during a more severe storm that passed through a week ago. My thought was that considering the severity of that event, all the trees still standing were probably pretty sturdy. Hilary reasoned that some of them might have been sorely weakened by the last assault and were now of the verge of toppling. (We discussed this only the next morning.)

It was a hot night, no need to climb into our sleeping bags. That being the case, we decided to sleep with our shoes on, in case we had to make a dash for the shower building at the top of the hill. As the storm moved in, you could feel the waves of cooler air drift into the tent. 

The day dawned bright and clear. I built a fire to heat water for the coffee (I'd forgotten to pack the stove!) and we were soon wending our way north on Aitkin County 56 and other obscure byways, past Ball Bluff and the quint, immaculate crossroads village of Jacobson, heading towards Meadowlands.