Monday, October 16, 2017

Thelonious Monk at 100

The hundredth anniversary of the birth of Thelonious Monk was widely celebrated in the press. Didn't you see the article by Ethan Iverson, jazz scholar and pianist for The Bad Plus, in the New Yorker? Iverson posted a more casual and extensive series of articles on his website, do the m@th, including an annotated discography.

Monk's music is well-loved by musicians—Iverson observes that more than sixty of his compositions are still in the jazz repertoire—and his personality is well-loved by journalists. He was the ultimate "cool cat," with dark glasses, pointy goatee, funny hats, and strange habits, such as, for example, dancing in circles while his band mates were soloing. The jury is out as to whether Monk was schizophrenic, autistic, or just plain weird. If you get a chance to see the documentary film Straight, No Chaser, take a look and decide for yourself. 

Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy spent some time in Monk's band, and he wrote down some of Monk's words of advice, underlining the key phrases:

Just because you're not a drummer doesn't mean you don't have to keep time.

Stop playing all those weird notes, play the melody.

You've got to dig it to dig it, you dig?

Let's lift the bandstand!

Don't play the piano part. I'm playing that.

The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good.

Don't play everything. What you don't play can be more important than what you do play.

They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it.

A genius is the one most like himself.

As for the music, the best way to become familiar with that is to listen to it, hence the importance of the discography. Iverson's is so inclusive as to be forbidding, but it's useful as a point of reference.

Years ago, a friend of mine who was just trying to get into jazz bought Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music. He hated it so much he gave it to me, unasked.

I didn't like it much, either. Iverson remarks: "As a set, these have the weakest performances in the Monk canon." I guess that explains it.

Monk's piano style isn't difficult to describe: lots of clinkers, discords, repeated poundy chords and downward whole tone runs. On the other hand, Monk has written some of the most lovely melodies in the jazz canon. " 'Round Midnight" is probably the most often-recorded jazz tune of the last half-century. Other classics include "Ruby, My Dear," "Pannonica," "Ask Me Now," and "Reflections." Monk also penned a large number of mid-tempo tunes that are staples of the jazz repertoire. These include "Four in One," "Nutty," "Blue Monk," "Monk's Dream," "Tinkle, Tinkle," "Hackensack," "Well, You Needn't," "In Walked Bud," and "Straight, No Chaser."

I've heard these tunes a thousand times, performed in a variety of instrumental settings, and I recognize them as Monk tunes immediately, though I couldn't put names to most of them. I used to spend a lot of time listening to the two-CD set of solo Monk recordings on Columbia, on which originals and standards are interspersed. As a result, I'm likely to identify "Sweet and Lovely," a popular song from 1931, or "Dinah," as Monk tunes, too. He infuses them with tinges of Monkish gravity, and reminds us that the originality of his musical world might draw as much from the "stride" era from which it emerged  as it does from the "bebop" he helped to create.

The common wisdom is that once Monk appeared on the cover of Time magazine and signed with Columbia, the quality of his recordings declined a little. Nevertheless, the neophyte could do worse than to pick up a copy of  Straight, No Chaser or Monk's Dream or Underground. Along with Monk Alone: the Complete Solo Recordings 1962-1968.

Throughout Monk's career other musicians found it a challenge to solo in front of his unorthodox piano phrasing. Then again, many performers have recorded albums with their own bands devoted exclusively to Monk's tunes, and several of these have become classics, too. Let me recommend Steve Lacy's Reflections (1958), Carmen McRae Sings Monk (1990), Sonny Fortune's Four in One (1994), and Fred Hersch's solo piano offering Thelonious (1997).

In a recent article devoted to Monk's career, Hersch remarked:

Monk’s works, some of them cryptic and difficult and others just plain fun, are designed as springboards for improvisation. Everything he wrote fits in a book of around a hundred pages—compare that to the volumes of work by Mozart, Bach or Beethoven! Yet his canonic compositions, which are subjected to reimaginings in almost every music style, still retain their essential “Monkishness.” His tightly constructed themes and challenging harmonic progressions take years to master.

Some of Monk's compositions are hardly more than rhythmic chants supporting brief and childlike melodies. But then the rhythms shift, the melody drops (or gains) a note, and things take on an entirely new harmonic perspective. Yes, "springboards for improvisation," but also catchy in themselves. Two of my favorites along these lines are the minimalist "Evidence" (check out the version by Lacy and Don Cherry here) and the relentless "Locomotion." (Listen here.) 

On the other end of the spectrum is the haunting "Round Midnight," which helped transform Miles Davis into a superstar. Here's a recording of Monk doing a solo rendition of that tune near the end of his career, in 1969.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Taking the Day Off

There are days in the life of a free lancer when he's just waiting for things: new chapter files, PDFs filled with proofer marks, images, proofs from the printer.  Why not take the day off?

It seems sensible enough. And besides, there are always quite a few things that need to be done around the house: mow the lawn, change a light bulb. Most important of all, perhaps, is to deal with those glorious tomatoes we brought home from the farmers' market on Sunday morning.

I had gotten an email from my friend Michel--a far better cook than me--mostly a photo of the spectacular tomatoes he'd gotten at the farmer's market. In response I sent him an old photo of my own.

"This is the perfect morning to head downtown," I wrote. "Here are a few heirloom tomatoes from our garden--the last two!"

The following email exchange ensued:

Michel: "Those look beautiful!"

Me: "And tasty!  But this morning I am thinking of leeks and squash with ground almonds. And I am literally stepping out the door as I write this. If you can recall how big my desk-top computer is, you will be able to imagine how difficult this is!"

Michel: "I find myself in a euphoric state when I go to the farmers market during the week when it's not busy and pick up bags of produce for a few dollars. I come home, lay them out of my table and want to take pictures of them or paint them, immortalize them...cook them."

It was, indeed, a remarkable morning. The air was so fresh and cool that as we approached the stalls I said to Hilary, "I feel like I'm at the beach!"  We bought so many things that we decided to carry our purchases back to the car and return for a second look around. At the very least, we still needed to pick up a bunch of cut flowers.

In the end, we brought home three robust bunches of leeks ($4 total); a nice basket of six tomatoes ($3); two huge red bell peppers, misshapen but firm ($1 total); a butternut squash; an acorn squash; a basket of potatoes ($3); some fairly tough-looking green beans ($2.50); a bunch of fresh basil the size of a bride's bouquet ($1.50); and some fresh dill ($1) which was worth the price for the aroma alone.

The next day I used up half of the leeks and all the potatoes making a batch of the best potato-leek soup I've ever tasted. 

We didn't have much of a chance to eat it, however. We'd been invited to Norton Stillman's annual Sukkoth party. (If we'd gone to the framers' market a half-hour later, we would have run into him buying a big bag of corn on the cob.)

I always enjoy these parties, which are like a book convention, only smaller, and you know a lot more of the people. I relish the opportunity to reconnect with authors I got to know pretty well while working with them on their books, only to lose sight of them later. Sharon Chmielarz, Kate Dayton, Norita Dittberner-Jax, and Margaret Hasse spring immediately to mind. They were all there—thoughtful, kind, and generous souls one and all.

Margie's husband, Dave, told me he was winnowing his vast collection of classical music CDs.

"When should I come over?" I replied, eagerly.

A few old friends from the Bookmen years are also likely to be there. Brett Waldman and I discussed the best places to buy fresh fish in Bayfield, where he loves to sail; he recommended a shop I've seen but never ventured into. And I had a good time with Bill Kaufmann reminiscing about shipping issues way back when, and the pleasures of lunch-time touch football.

Author John Coy complimented me once again on the fonts I used on a reprint of his book Vroomaloom Zoom back in 2010. "Ah, yes,  I replied, "Croomby and Babelfish. I don't get much of an opportunity to use either of those nowadays." John and I got around to talking about the Portuguese empire, and when his wife, Fiona, joined us, we discussed  the interview she did with essayist Geoff Dyer a few years back at the downtown library. (Once again, lost in the past.)

A few minutes later, Tom Pope was telling me about a book he's working on comparing psychology as it's variously conceived by dramatists and psychologists. "You ought to read Philosophy as Dramatic Theory by the Spanish philosopher Julien Marias," I said.

"Who?" He replied. And he strode off to find a piece of paper and a pen.

Norton had grilled seven planks of salmon for the event, and there were pots of ratatouille, bowls of pesto and spinach dip, corn on the cob, and three kinds of apple crisp at least. Freya Manfred had brought one, Michael Keisaw Moore a second. No one seemed to know who had brought the third.

That event occupied our evening, and it wasn't until the next day that a bit more of the soup got eaten. But we'd been invited to a small retirement gathering that night for a friend at Ginger Hop. They have a good happy hour there. We filled up on spring rolls, calamari, and Jackie Chan burgers, and Sheila told us about various things her co-workers had given her at her retirement party, including a bottle of single malt scotch. We had soon hatched a plan for a Halloween poker game, with everyone arriving in kilts, drinking scotch, and watching Jackie Chan's masterpiece, Rush Hour, together.  

It might not have been the high point of the evening when I raised the question: "Why doesn't anyone read Stendhal's The Red and the Black anymore?"

Having raised the question, I felt it was incumbent upon me to re-read some of the book again myself. And when we got home I made my way through the first three chapters in a new translation by Burton Raffel. I enjoyed them, though it occurred to me that if a new translation had been published recently, it was absurd to consider the book a forgotten classic.

All the while, the potato soup was doing just fine in the fridge. But by the next morning, the dill was shot, the basil had lost its glisten, and the tomatoes were starting to show their age—a few brownish patches on the skins. I was going to make spaghetti sauce and had gotten the onions going on the stove, but when I started to cut up the tomatoes it struck me that after removing the blemishes, they still looked (and tasted) quite good. Why turn them into a ho-hum pan of sauce?

The result of this dramatic about-face was a bowl of tomato-basil-garlic topping for toasted bread, commonly known as bruschetta, and also a bowl of pepperoni siciliana. (The word bruschetta actually refers to the bread, not the tomato topping. I have a hunch there's an etymological connection between that word and the English word brusque, though I've never investigated.)

It's a never-ending story. The butternut squash will go with the leeks in a melange, baked with heavy cream and topped with chopped almonds....The sun will continue to strike the dew on the grass, later there will be frost, you'll be able to see your breath. Orion will return, and the day will come when darkness arrives at four in the afternoon. You will look down from the freeway overpass to see that the farmers' market, brightly lit under the snow-covered canopies, is filled with evergreen trees.

But not yet.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Inside Lydia Davis

I first learned about the writer Lydia Davis on the Facebook feed of the Paris Review. Perhaps she'd just won the Booker Prize and they were reprinting a critique of her work they'd published years ago. She sounded strange, and interesting.

This summer, at a sparsely attended noon book event in front of the football stadium downtown, I noticed on a flyer put out by the university that she would be speaking here in the fall.

A few weeks later I ran across an advance reading copy of Davis's collected stories at a library sale in downtown Duluth on sale for a dollar. Naturally, I bought it.

Hilary and I were on a mid-week vacation, and though the book is thick—740 pages—I found it very easy to dip into. Some of the "stories" are so short that they, and similar works by other writers, have been described as "flash fiction."  Here are three examples:

No one is calling me. I can't check the answering machine because I have been here all this time. It I go out, someone may call while I'm out. Then I can check the answering machine when I come back in.

Honoring the Subjunctive
It invariably precedes, even if it do not altogether supersede, the determination of what is absolutely desirable and just.

Information from the North Concerning the Ice
Each seal uses many blowholes, and every blowhole is used by many seals.

I do not think that a book filled with such creations would go very far. But I could well be wrong. (Now I'm starting to sound like her, deliberating, doubting my own judgment.) In any case, Davis's collections include pieces that are a paragraph, a page, and even ten pages. Here's another one:

We know only four boring people. The rest of our friends we find very interesting. However, most of the friends we find interesting find us boring: the most interesting find us the most boring. The few who are somewhere in the mid­dle, with whom there is reciprocal interest, we distrust: at any moment, we feel, they may become too interesting for us, or we too interesting for them.

From even these brief examples, it should be clear that Davis often prefers repetition to succinctness, and that a melancholy cloud hangs over much of her work. Interior monologues are the norm. In the course of her ruminations we get to know the narrator, who is often someone very much like Lydia Davis, and we begin to enjoy her quibbles, false steps, doubts, anxieties, assertions, and perplexities. 

Yet there are also plenty of stories that have a little more meat on their bones. For example, in "Glenn Gould," she introduces us to a woman who enjoys playing the piano, listens to Glenn Gould often, and also watches the "Mary Tyler Moore" show religiously. Davis describes this woman's scattershot thoughts when she learns that Glenn Gould was also an avid fan of that show. In "Kafka Cooks Dinner" Davis sets herself the task of recreating the thoughts of that writer as he prepares to cook a meal for his girl friend. Here are the opening lines:

I am so filled with despair as the time grows near when she will come and I have not even begun to make a decision about what I will offer her. I am so afraid I will fall back on the Kartoffel Surprise, and it’s no surprise to her anymore. I mustn’t, I mustn’t. I tell myself each morning that it will be different this time, I will plan the meal today, days ahead of time, but no—as though I am indeed my own enemy, the hours pass and I thrust the thought away from me: dinner, no, I will not think of it. Oh, such sickness, this is truly the sickness unto death.    

Davis's style bears obvious similarities to the crotchety  and obsessive book-long monologues of Thomas Bernhard, though the tone is entirely different, and her penchant for brevity might seem to ally her work more closely to that of Samuel Beckett. One thing is clear: she takes no interest in conventional dialogue or story-line. As she remarked at the reading the other night, with characteristic deliberateness, "Sometimes these experiments are successful; at other times they're less successful."

It's always fun to return to campus and mingle with the crowd. I spent eight years at the U, I had a good time, and I learned quite a bit, though nothing really came of it. It's good to see kids continuing to learn, continuing to strive, continuing to pursue enthusiasms and create little social worlds with their friends.

Then there are the tweedy academics who have developed specialties, explored arcane regions of history and thought, and perhaps made a name for themselves within their chosen field. A fairly high percentage of the attendees were women of a certain age, often arriving in pairs or small groups.

It's a vibrant and attractive scene. One thing I never would have guessed is how many translators were in the crowd. This is because the promotions for Davis's talk never mentioned that it was part of the 2017 American Literary Translators Association conference. And checking that conference schedule, I see that there was no official connection. Yet Davis is well known for her translations of Flaubert and Proust, and her presentation was devoted to enumerating the 17 ways that translating books can be pleasurable.

We arrived early and took two seats in the seventh row. After listening for several minutes to a man in the row behind us describing the plot of The Elegance of the Hedgehog to his friends in great detail in a painfully unctuous voice, Hilary suggested we move back a few rows, ostensibly so we could see more of the crowd as the place filled up. And we did. 

The seats immediately behind us were soon occupied by three young female students who seemed to be deeply immersed in the world of undergraduate creative writing.

"Like, I was going to take intermediate poetry, you know, I never took intro but they would have let me, but intermediate turned out to be at night, and like, no way, that wasn't for me. So I went for non-fiction."

"Is Maud in that class?"

"OH, MY GOD. Like, she volunteers to lead the class, and then, like, walks in twenty minutes late and says to the teacher, 'Why don't you lead it?' which she already was doing. I don't know what her problem is."

Davis's began her talk by remarking that one great pleasure of being a writer is that you do it at home, by yourself. Giving a talk is something else again. She read her talk, listing the seventeen pleasures of translating and elaborating on them one after another. The main point was that when you're translating a book, you don't have to generate the material yourself. It already exists. So you go about solving particular problems, though you also begin to inhabit other worlds.

It was an interesting talk, though I think this article by her that appeared in the Paris Review on a similar subject is more interesting.

In any case, the chief pleasure of such events is the experience of seeing a famous author, perhaps one you admire greatly, in person: how she talks, walks, answers questions. Lydia Davis talks in the same deliberate way she writes. She questions herself and amends her remarks with a vaguely melancholy humor. As I listened, I was reminded of one of her very short stories, "A Position at the University."

I think I know what sort of person I am. But then I think, But this stranger will imagine me quite otherwise when he or she hears this or that to my credit, for instance that I have a position at the university: the fact that I have a posi­tion at the university will appear to mean that I must be the sort of person who has a position at the university. But then I have to admit, with surprise, that, after all, it is true that I have a position at the university. And if it is true, then perhaps I really am the sort of person you imagine when you hear that a person has a position at the university. But, on the other hand, I know I am not the sort of person I imagine when I hear that a person has a position at the university. Then I see what the problem is: when others describe me this way, they appear to describe me com­pletely, whereas in fact they do not describe me completely, and a complete description of me would include truths that seem quite incompatible with the fact that I have a position at the university.

To my mind, Davis does not seem really to be the sort of person who would have a position at the university. She exhibits that sort of deep honesty that a writer in her solitary room can cultivate, but which an academic at a committee meeting often cannot. Her work is original, largely due to Davis's devotion to her self, her problems, and the things she needs to work out personally—things that are often aesthetic problems rather than personal problems, and in either case, have far less to do with pedagogy than with art.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Summer Reading

Summer is over. Back in school, with that strange smell of library paste and musty plaster, we are required by our English teacher--Mrs. Deutsch, Miss Ganyo, Mr. Erdmann--to prepare a report on the books we read over the summer.

Looking back over the season it strikes me that I found time to absorb several interesting volumes, and I wasn't lying on a beach, either.

Travels with Herodotus - Rysard Kapuschinski

I was forced to read Herodotus in college, and it changed my life. The professor demanded that we take detailed notes to prove we'd actually read that long book, and he warned us sternly, "I can easily tell if you're copying from a study crib."

The book was full of detailed information about tribes from every part of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, much of it anecdotal and some of it wildly far-fetched. The central "event" around which Herodotus layers his weird mix of narrative and ethnography is the Persian invasion of Greece in 490 BCE. Good stuff. My thought was, "This is way more interesting than mathematics." So I changed my major, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Polish journalist Rysard Kapuschinski tells us here that during his early years as a stranger with few language skills reporting from India, China, and various African nations on the verge of dying or being born, Herodotus's histories were his constant companion. Though he never comes out and says so, it's reasonable to assume Kapuschinski thinks of himself as a modern-day Herodotus, chronicling strange customs and violent events from every corner of the globe. His descriptions of his early years as a journalist writing for a country—Poland—that many of the people he met had never heard of, are interesting. His retelling of selected parts of Herodotus's account of the Persian war are less so. The parallels to modern events are too obvious to mention...but he mentions them. On the other hand, in the course of his narrative Kapuscinski raises some interesting historiographic questions.

At one point he visits the ruined city of Persepolis and ponders all the suffering required to construct the once-impressive buildings that now lie in ruins.

When we look at lifeless temples, palaces, and cities, we can't help but wonder about the fate of their builders. Their pain, their broken backs, their eyes gouged out by errant splinters of stone, their rheumatism. About their unfortunate lives, their suffering. But the very next question that invariably arises is: Could these wonders have come into being without that suffering? Without the overseer’s whip, the slave’s fear, the ruler’s vanity? In short, was not the monumentality of past epochs created by that which is negative and evil in man? And yet, does not that monumentality owe its existence to some conviction that what is negative and weak in man can be vanquished only by beauty, only through the effort and will of his creation? And that the only thing that never changes is beauty itself, and the need for it that dwells within us?

Maybe so. Maybe no. I don't think that beauty and monumentality are synonymous. We may get a tingling of sincere faith standing in the dark nave of Notre Dame de Paris, but the masons who crafted it might rather have been back home repairing their cottages and sheep pens.

I have been interested in Kapuscinski for decades by reputation, without ever having read him. Wandering the house I found that I'd picked up several of his other books over the years: Imperium, Another Day of Life, The Other, The Soccer Wars. He has a reputation as being the journalist's journalist, more daring in both his escapades and his prose than others. But reading half-way through The Soccer Wars, I didn't find that to be the case. The details were scanty, and the tribal soldiers at jungle check-points, all of whom held him at gunpoint, all started to sound like the same man—a journalistic cliché. And I began to wonder if Kapuschinski might simply be a thrill-seeker or a daredevil ham.

A controversy arose in 2010 as to whether Kapuschinski's books ought to be categorized as fiction rather than journalism or contemporary history. I don't know. But his Travels with Herodotus is an engaging read, and it made me pull my own copy of the West's first historian off the shelf again. Briefly.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon - José Saramago

Saramago is one of those wise fools who cultivates a very simple syntax and is very patient in developing a plot. This book revolves around a proof-reader names Raimondo Silva who, on a whim, arbitrarily changes a single word in the book he's proofing. The author had written that the Crusaders, on their way to the Holy Land by ship in 1378, agreed to help the Portuguese expel the Muslims from Lisbon. The proofer inserts the word "not"—they chose not to help them—thus changing the thrust of the entire story.

Why did he do this? I don't know. Perhaps I wasn't reading carefully. Though at one point Saramago makes an interesting point about the power of words:

It is well known, for example, that Nietzsche's proofreader, although a fervent believer, resisted the temptation to insert the word Not on a certain page, thus amending the philosopher’s phrase, God is dead, God is not dead. If proof-readers were given their freedom and did not have their hands and feet tied by a mass of prohibitions more binding than the penal code, they would soon transform the face of the world, establish the kingdom of universal happiness, giving drink to the thirsty, food to the famished, peace to those who live in turmoil, joy to the sorrowful, companionship to the solitary, hope to those who have lost it, not to mention the rapid disappearance of poverty and crime, for they would be able to do all these things simply by changing the words, and should anyone doubt these new demiurges, they need only remember that this is precisely how the world and man came to be made, with words, some rather than others, so that things might turn out just so, and in no other fashion, Let it be done, said God, and it was done immediately.

In any case, from this point on, the novel moves back and forth between two narrative strands. The proofer's boss, newly hired to make sure such mistakes do not recur, suggests that he rewrite the entire book as if the Crusaders had moved on, forcing the Portuguese to bring their siege to a successful conclusion on their own. Meanwhile, the proofer finds that he's falling in love with his boss. Saramago shifts deftly back and forth between the alternative history being fashioned by the proofer and his very-slow-to-develop romance with his boss.

Along the way, Saramago, like Kapuchinski, explores the issue of what makes history "true."  

...any piece of writing, good or bad, always ends up appearing like a predetermined crys­tallisation, although no one can ever say how or when or why or by whom.

But he also succeeds in interjecting a few vaguely erotic impressions, in case we were worried that the fictional history of the siege would be the only draw. For example, here is the passage wherein his boss first suggests that he write that counter-history.

Then why this interest, this proposal, this conversation, Because it isn’t every day that you come across someone who has done what you did, I was in a state of agitation, Come on, Without wishing to be rude, I’m convinced your idea doesn’t make sense, Then forget I ever mentioned it, Raimundo Silva got to his feet, adjusted his coat which he had never removed, Unless there is something else you wish to discuss, I’ll be going, Take your book, it’s the only copy of its kind. Dr Maria Sara wears no ring to suggest that she is married. As for her blouse, chemise, or whatever it is called, it looks like being made of silk, in a pale shade difficult to describe, beige, old ivory, off-white, whether it is possible that fingertips tremble differently according to the colours they touch or caress, we cannot say.

This passage may give you an idea of Saramago's style. He doesn't work very hard to distinguish who is talking when, but the sense isn't difficult to grasp in most cases. At one point it occurred to me that his prose bears some resemblance to that of the Anglo-Irish novelist George Moore. But no one reads George Moore these days, and we'll leave that discussion for another time.

Netherland - Joseph O'Neill

Unfolding in the aftermath of the Twin Towers debacle, this beautifully crafted novel follows the semi-vacant days of a Wall Street analyst named Hans once his estranged wife is impelled to escape the lingering ashes and return with their son to England. We learn, early on, that much of the plot, such as it is, will involve a Jamaican cricket-player named Chuck. Hans is Dutch, and was once an avid cricketer himself.

Time shifts come often and O'Neill handles them deftly. We aren't far into the book before Hans has rejoined his wife in England. Many months have passed. One night he receives a phone call from authorities in New York to inform him that Chuck's body has been found at the bottom of a harbor in New Jersey, handcuffed to a post. Genuinely perplexed, he tells them, "I can't imagine why anyone would want to kill Chuck."

The rest of the book consists largely of the narrator's ruminations about that strange and lonely interlude in his life, when, reverting to teenage enthusiasms, he played cricket often with the Jamaicans, took driving lessons from Chuck, and in the process learned about many ethnic neighborhoods in the boroughs that he'd never seen before, including one established by his Dutch ancestors centuries ago.  

On the dust jacket Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times compares Netherland to The Great Gatsby, but this novel is far better than that bland and clumsy tale. It might better be compared to Max Frisch's Homo Faber or Javier Marias's A Heart So White, both of which are exquisitely written and centered on the foibles of keenly observant but emotionally distant men.

She looked stricken; and I suppose, since I am now fully aware ... that the steamboat of marriage must be fed incessantly with the coals of communication, that I should have explained to my wife that I came from Holland, where I rarely saw dancing, and indeed that I’d been a little amazed to see how young Englishmen threw themselves around to music, dancing even with other men, and that this abandon was alien to me and that, perhaps, she might for this reason wish to bear with me. But I said nothing, think­ing the matter inconsequential. It would certainly have astonished me to learn that years later I would look back on this episode and ask myself ... if it represented a so-called fork in the road—which in turn led me to drunkenly wonder if the course of a relationship of love was truly explicable in terms of right turns and wrong turns, and if so whether it was possible to backtrack to that split where it all went wrong, or if in fact it was the case that we are all doomed to walk in a forest in which all paths lead one equally astray, there being no end to the forest, an inquiry whose very uselessness led to another spasm of wayward contemplation that ended only when I noticed Chuck leading a hobbled Dr. Seem back into the chair next to mine.

My one complaint is a minor one. The narrator could have given us a little more information about his home life and a little less about cricket. But the novel is so rich as it stands that I am suddenly tempted to start reading it again.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Sun and Moon Together

It might have been 9 a.m. when we arrived at Sugar Farms. Two young boys emerged from a very small tent as we pulled up. Just beyond them I could see tents and trailers in the pastures, amply spaces and uniformly enveloped in a thin cloud of radiant mist. Bright blue porta-potties punctuated the scene here and there. One of the boys called his mother, and we met up with her at a shed we'd passed on the way in. Tim and I forked over our twenty dollar bills and she scratched our names off a hand-written list.

"They call our place 'sugar ranch' because we fatten up our livestock real well," she told us, "but some people call it "disabled acres." That's because we like to buy disabled cows, fatten them up real good, and then eat them ourselves."

Looking out across the field behind us, I asked her about the condition of the terrain.

"Oh, I drive my Nissan all over the place out there. It's all pretty firm, though there are bumpy patches. The ground's a little higher over there by the fence."  

Indeed, the area by the fence looked good, and we headed over, skirting a shallow pond along the way. One trailer stood fifty yards to the north, and a gravel road cut through the property twenty-five yards to the south.  To the east we could see the distant roof of a ranch building half a mile away. 

There was still dew on the grass, and it sparkled in the hazy morning light. We parked the cars next to one another, but far enough apart to give us plenty of room between them to sit. For the next two hours, this enclave became our little home, office, laboratory, and lounge.

And it was perfect. Carol got out her knitting; Gayle and Hilary made a pin-hole camera out of a paper plate. Tim pulled out an umbrella, to protect his sensitive Irish skin from the glare. I read a few pages out loud about Lawrence Welk's early years in North Dakota from Ian Frazier's Great Plains.

I was totally entranced by the scene; I had never seen vehicles, mobile homes, tents, and people spread out with greater intelligence and taste across the countryside. But our only near neighbor didn't share that opinion. The first time I looked over his way, he made a gesture with upturned hands that meant "What? Are you going to park there?" As if we were blocking his view of the sky. His dog had started baking the moment we arrived.

"Yes, we are," I nodded, adding those facial gestures that mean, "Why not?"

The dog eventually quieted down. Hilary and Gayle went over to chat a few minutes later and learned that the man had been parked in that spot for three days. I guess by now he was feeling a little proprietary. I was happy when I saw his wife and daughter emerge from the trailer. It suddenly seemed less likely that he'd unleash the dog on us or pull a shotgun out of the cab.

For the next hour we chatted, goofed around, took some posed photos that I later photo-shopped into a group picture, wandered over to the porta-potty, and watched bands of clouds appear, pass overhead, and continue on to the southeast. Both Gayle and Carol consulted their phones repeatedly for the latest weather report.

Right on schedule (surprise, surprise) the disc of the moon took a very slim bite out of the sun. Distant voices cheered and whooped. A half hour later the fields started to look pale, then a little shadowy, then fairly dark. Clouds passed across the face of the sun from time to time and drifted on.
It took about an hour to complete the meal. One moment the moon had largely covered the sun, and the next it had popped completely over it, creating a fiery golden doughnut overhead.

What can you say? It was cool. People cheered in the distance. We opened a bottle of wine. The sky above our heads was a rich, deep blue, while the horizon was lit as if by a purple sunset in every directions. Hilary noticed that most of the cattle on the far side of the road were lying down.

But such moments are impossible to seize. Photos of fiery rings or leaping coronas don't come close. The effect is largely environmental rather than astronomical. It's simultaneously rare and insignificant. There is no way to wrap your head around it, and due to that fact, such events are often infused not only with awe and a giddy kind of joy but also with nostalgia. Instant nostalgia. 

Then it's over. Here comes the sun again. We just saw this movie, except in reverse. Twenty minutes after that brief two-minute span of totality, the light was merely pale and strange again, and all the cows were back on their feet. Ten minutes later, with the eclipse still unwinding itself, our neighbor had already packed up his chairs and his family and driven off.

We lingered in the after-shadow, looking up occasionally with the specially designed glasses from NASA, decorated with an American flag, that Gayle had distributed to everyone back in March. It had been an event to remember.

Two hours later, as we drove into Chadron State Park, we spotted a couple we often see at concerts in Minneapolis. Turns out they're eclipse chasers. This was their eleventh. They had gathered that evening with friends from the Netherlands and Australia they'd met at previous eclipse events.

I don't think I'll ever become an eclipse-chaser myself. It was a marvelous excuse for an excursion, but if I had to chose between the eclipse itself or the four day road trip with old friends, I'd forego the two minutes of midday darkness, awesome though it may be, and keep the trip. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Eclipse Overture

Our second day involved less highway grinding and more pleasant touring. I'm tempted to call it our wildlife day. After making a few stops at pullouts along the upper rim of the Badlands, we took a gravel road twelve miles to Sage Creek Campground. Along the way we saw a big horned sheep, hundreds of prairie dogs, and a ferruginous hawk—a species I'd never seen before. It was probably looking for a careless prairie dog to eat for lunch. At the spur leading to the campground the other car spotted three red-headed woodpeckers in a small grove of cottonwoods, while just ahead, we were coming upon our first magpie, which it hopped into the shade under a hippie van as we approached.

It was hot in the noon-time glare of the treeless campground, and I was glad we hadn't spent the night there. A few tents were scattered over the dusty expanse, but one of the women hanging out in the shade of a ramada said, "Last night this place was packed!"

On our way out we were stopped by a herd of buffalo desultorily crossing the road. I should have been admiring them but I was impatient to get going, and I started to wonder if the two cars bollixed up ahead of us were enthralled by the beasts or simply too timid to make their way through.

Studying the map a few minutes earlier, we had decided to have lunch in Farmingdale. When we arrived we discovered there was nothing in Farmingdale. We next chose Hermosa as a rendezvous, but the most appealing place we could find there was a deli in a casino-cum-truck-stop called the Flying J.

It was 2 p.m. and we were glad to get in out of the sun for a while.  I got a ham and cheese sandwich in a cellophane wrapper and a plastic container of baked beans. They both would have been better if I'd micro-waved them—the bun was on the verge of being frozen—but with loads of mustard and mayo and a big bag of bar-b-que potato chips, the "meal" was satisfactory.

Tim and Carol, more adventurous, purchased a chicken-fried steak sandwich, with the thought that if it was good, they'd buy a second one. They each took a single bite and then, by mutual consent, tossed it in the garbage. Hilary, going further out on a limb, bought a sausage wrapped in pastry dough with jalapeños and cheese that was sitting under a heat lamp —a glorified pig-in-a-blanket, one of the specialties of the deli.

I think the do-it-yourself root beer floats oozing out of a big do-it-yourself machine may have been the hit of the occasion. "We're going to get one of those for the house," Tim said.

Just south of Hermosa we turned west on Highway 36 and were almost instantly engulfed in a wonderland of rising hills, green pastures, and shadowed pine woods. The sudden contrast was extraordinary, and welcome. We forked over the entry fee at the park gate—$20 per car—and made our way along the narrow and winding road through the open woods to the Needles and on to Sylvan Lake.

At one point we spotted some mountain goats on the rocks just above the road. And at the Sylvan Lake Lodge we ordered drinks and sat on the terrace in the late afternoon shade discussing whether there might be a limit to how many birds could bear a single individual's name. For example, after the Swainson's hawk and Swainson's thrush, does the ornithological union cut Swainson off? But what about the Wilson's phalarope, the Wilson's thrush ... and Wilson's warbler!

The subject came up because I'd mentioned that I was surprised there weren't any Clark's nutcrackers anywhere nearby—it seemed like perfect habitat—and went on to say, in case anyone was interested, that the bird was named after William Clark of "Lewis and Clark" fame.

The lodge is small but nice—a large field stone lobby with timbered furniture, a quaint bar, and a well-lit dining room beyond—but the terrace doesn't have much of the view. And they were piping pop music out past the ponderosa pines! I think the Sons of the Pioneers or Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen would have been more appropriate.

On our way back to the car I spotted three big whitish birds attacking the cones in a tree alongside the parking lot.

"What are they?" Carol shouted. (They were parked on the other side of the lot.)

"Clark's nutcrackers," I replied.

"Next time, we should bring up the subject of ivory-billed woodpeckers," she said.

It was a ten-minute ride south to Custer, the attractive tourist town where Gayle had booked a "family suite" of rooms at the Rocket Motel six months ago. It was actually a single long room with the bathroom placed in the middle, which made the two sleeping areas more private. The rooms were immaculate, and the tile work in the narrow bathroom was superb.

The receptionist had only a single key to give the five of us, which proved to be a problem later. But the motel's great strength was its covered terrace, where, as the sun went down, we could sit at wrought-iron patio tables and watch the world go by on Main Street just below us.

A winsome couple from San Diego sat down at the next table to eat a pizza they'd picked up in town.
"This isn't the pizza we ordered," the man said as he opened the box, though he didn't seem very upset. "There's no pineapple on it."

"That means someone else got our pizza," his son said astutely. "Well, I guess we might as well eat it."

"So, you're here to see the eclipse?" the man called over to us. "Where ya from?"

We told him. He and his wife had flown to Denver from San Diego with their two kids. "Did you hear they banned double-semis from the freeways in Colorado and put construction projects on hold to alleviate congestion on the freeways? They say a million people are headed this way. We decided it would be easier to drive north of the totality line and ease back into it from this direction."

They had been hearing stories as they passed through the small towns on the path of totality. "In Agate," the woman said, "they've been discussing such things as what kinds of ordinance is in place to respond to someone who wants to sacrifice a chicken during the eclipse. Is that legal? These towns aren't used to all the attention. They've been preparing for years."

The outdoor terrace and hot tub
The eclipse had been calculated to commence at 10:30 the next morning (mountain time) and we were two and a half hours away according to Google Maps. I had been thinking that under normal conditions we'd have plenty of time if we got up at 6, but after a bit of discussion we decided to set our alarm clocks for 3:30 and try to leave Custer by 4. Carol located an all-night convenience store in town on her phone—the Corner Pantry—where we could get some coffee before setting out, and we spent a few minutes relaxing in the hot tub adjoining the terrace, confident that all the pieces were falling into place nicely.

It was at this point that we inadvertently locked ourselves out of the room.

*   *   *

I love the muffled sounds of early, early morning, when your mind is like cotton and your body is stumbling around on "safe" mode, not yet fully booted. Get up, get dressed, get packed, and get out: that's all you have to do.  Stepping outside into the cool night air, I noticed that on the street below, someone had driven a big white pickup truck up onto the curb. (I think he may have been delivering papers to the corner news stand.) We were soon headed downtown on Mt. Rushmore Blvd. to the Corner Pantry, which turned out to be a well-lit Conoco gas station stocked with plenty of sugary donuts and rubbery breakfast burritos. The coffee pots seemed to be empty, however.

The magic before dawn

"I'm making some more right now. It will be ready in a second," the manager said. She was thin as a rail, heavily tattooed, and looked to be about sixteen. Several of us noticed that the cream dispenser squirted cream sideways, and when I mentioned it to her, she said, "I clean that every hour. It just sticks out of the bag funny." She was definitely on the ball.

We headed out of town going south at 4:15 (I looked at the clock on the dash). The main drag soon turned into Highway 385, otherwise known as the Gold Rush Byway, which would take us all the way to Alliance. It was pitch black, and there were very few cars on the road. The landscape was shrouded in fog. The tail lights of our companion car soon disappeared around the bends ahead of us, only to reappear on the straightaways, growing ever smaller.

Rounding one bend, we came upon an elk standing in the road, but he moved aside into the ditch a split second before I tapped the horn.

The town of Hot Springs seemed to go on forever in the dark, and it struck me that many of the limestone buildings whizzing by in front of the headlights as we wove our way through it might have been worth looking at more carefully in daylight.

Semis caught and passed us occasionally, but as light came gradually to the sky and the fog lifted, the tone remained hushed. Gayle, who was in the other car, texted Hilary as we approached Alliance, and we pulled into the Conoco station on the outskirts of Chadron where they were already parked.

We were now an hour north of Alliance. Traffic continued to be very light, almost nonexistent. As the sun rose it transformed the fog itself into a thin diaphanous blanket.  At one point four large dark birds flew across the highway ahead of the car. My first thought was cormorants, but then I got a better look at the bills. "Hey, look," I said, "Ibises!"

That was the only unusual thing we saw until we passed a makeshift sign pointing the way to Carhenge. At the next intersection three men were ushering cars into a field. The fee: $10. It was easy to see that the "guests" were being lined up like sardines in anticipation of a big turnout, but the field was less than a quarter full. It was not an appealing scene. 

We turned left on the gravel road past the makeshift gate and continued east, passing several similar pay-and-park operations, and turned south on the next section road. We were looking for Madison Road, which sounded important but was no different from the other gravel roads in the vicinity. A mile or so east and we arrived at Sugar Farm.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Before the Eclipse

It all started in February, with a morning email from our friend Gayle:

There's going to be a total eclipse crossing the U.S. in August. Wanna go?

By the end of the day, everyone she'd notified had come on board, and Gayle had reserved the "family" room at the Rocket Motel in Custer, South Dakota. This would be our springboard to the typically open skies of western Nebraska, across which the zone of eclipse totality lay.

The small group of friends who made up the ensemble have travelled together in various permutations since the 1970s. We'd been to the bottom of the Grand Canyon together, and we'd been to the bottom of Dark Canyon, Utah, together. On our first trip to the Boundary Waters, Tim and Carol had been expecting their first child, and that child is now expecting her fourth child. We'd been to summer cabins on the North Shore, where we once spotted a Hudsonian curlew (now widely referred to as a wimbrel) wandering along the roadside, and established the Curlew Club in honor of the occasion. More recently we've been to winter cabins north of Grand Rapids together, though the allure of cross-country skiing seems to be fading for some of us.

One or two things had changed over the years, but here we were again, heading out together on a big adventure.

Thirty years ago, we would all have clambered into a single car. This time, we took two.

Thirty years ago, we might have planned a few meals  and bought groceries. This time, we decided to wing it.

A few days after the initial proposal was bruited, I suggested that we take an extra day going out to make the nine-hour drive less onerous and give us time to explore the Badlands and the Black Hills a little. The notion met with approval and I booked two of the four remaining campsites in the Cedar Pass Campground.

At some point it dawned on me that we might need somewhere to stay after the eclipse and I booked a campsite at Chadron State Park, forty miles north of Alliance, Nebraska, the locale where we'd decided to view the big event.

As the big day approached, the hype surrounding the event intensified. A half a million people would be coming to Nebraska, we were told. The governor would be flying in to Alliance from Lincoln to give a speech at Carhenge, a few miles outside of town. We began to imagine roads clogged with tourists, state highway patrol officers combing the back roads to ticket or incarcerate tourists who had simply pulled off the road to view the eclipse. (In fact, most of the roads out that way have no shoulders.)

The town of Alliance had been planning for the event for two years, and they'd developed a website to describe all the activities associated with it: food trucks, rock'n'roll bands, games, educational events. We didn't care about any of that stuff. But when you're six-hundred miles away, it's hard to imagine how big the town really is or how many people will show up. In short, we didn't know quite what kind of a mess we were getting ourselves into, and imagination runs rampant.

The Alliance website identified no less than 46 camping or viewing sites in the vicinity. I called up one near town, but he wanted $50 for a parking spot. I called another one who wanted only $10, but he didn't have porta-potties and would only take people with trailers. Then I called Sugar Farms, three miles north and east of town. The woman who answered the phone, Lexi, wanted $20 for the privilege of parking in her pasture. She took my name and said, "Just pay me when you get here." 

Fair enough.

We got to the Badlands after a full day of driving. Having crossed the Missouri River, we were now  in "the West": harsh, largely empty terrain, the land of coyotes and golden eagles, buffalo and pronghorn, sage brush and wide open spaces. There are badlands scattered here and there throughout the west, of course—heavily eroded but graceful landforms with colorful strata and (smetimes) sharp peaks—but the Badlands of South Dakota deserve their capital B. Dry and forbidding in the noonday sun, they're often gorgeous when clothed in the glancing light and deep shadows of sunrise or sunset.

The campground had nary a shrub or tree for privacy, but it did have picnic tables and slabwood ramadas for shade; with the flanks of the Badlands rising a few hundred yards to the north of us, it struck me as great, somehow.

Our only near neighbor was a family of four from Seattle who were situated across the road. I met them by chance as I was wandering around, oblivious to my surroundings, trying to determine if the bird on a nearby post was a mountain bluebird or a western bluebird. Lowering my binoculars, I noticed I was standing in their campsite.

The neighbors
"Oh, pardon me," I apologized."Do you know birds? I think that's a mountain bluebird. We don't have them in Minnesota."

"We don't have them in Washington, either," the man replied, with a bemused grin on his face. (So he did know a little something about birds.)

In time I learned he was a research biologist. He and his family had come out to see the countryside and also the eclipse. They were planning to intercept the historic event near Casper, Wyoming, on their way home. I promised him we would be quiet. "I hate noise in the campground," I said, as if to convince him of our benign intentions.

And we didn't make much noise that night. The wind was coming in so strong from the west, it often rose above the voices and the banging pots and pans. It was too warm to have a fire, but we ended up singing a few cowboy songs—"I Ride an Old Paint" and "Singin' His Cattle Call" among others—as the box wine continued to flow. We heard coyotes twice, high-pitched but distant, over the fluffle of the wind on the tents.

As night descended, the landscape had the feel of a gypsy camp, with individual couples and families minding their own business as they cooked, ate, chatted, headed off to the toilet building or the evening lecture at the amphitheater a quarter-mile away, or got ready for bed. One after another, the light from lanterns and hi-tech flashlights punctuated the darkness.

The wind blew for most of the night. The rainfly, just outside our tent but roughly a foot from my ear, went wuff-wuff-wuff incessantly, but at irregular intervals, seemingly forever. I might have woken up twenty times during the night, but they all seemed like the same time, so the damage was minimal.

The next morning Tim told me their tent, quite tall but lacking the support of rainfly guywires, sometimes bent over so much that it was flat to the ground with the three of them inside it. Yet the poles never snapped, and a few seconds later, the tent would bound up again, like one of those stove-pipe man-balloons you see on the roadside in front of a car dealership.

We ate breakfast at the restaurant of the nearby Cedar Pass Lodge. Hilary had spotted a sign on the door on our way in, advertising a buffalo butchering that we could attend at ten that morning. I asked our waitress if she was Oglala. "Yes, I'm from Kyle," she replied.

"Are you going to go to the buffalo butchering this morning?" I said. (Stupid question. But it gets the conversation going.)

"No, I'll be working," she replied, "but a few weeks ago my parents were given the honor of butchering the buffalo for our tribal powwow."

"Really. What kind of knives do you use?" I said.

"Different knives. We often use fillet knives. It's a ceremony."

"I suppose it's just for the tribe," I said.

"No, it's open to the public. You should come."

"We're the kind of people who  just might," I said. "Where did you say you were from again?"

(to be continued)