Thursday, June 23, 2016

Magnus Nilsson: Puffins Stuffed with Cake

Magnus Nilsson is an internationally renowned chef (32 years old) whose  restaurant, Fäviken, is currently ranked number 19 on the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants list. The restaurant sits in the basement of a lodge on a remote island in the Baltic Sea 270 miles north of Stockholm. I suspect neither you nor I will be going there any time soon.

What we can do is stop in at the American Swedish Institute in South Minneapolis to see some of the snapshots Magnus has taken of Icelandic landscapes, exotic sea birds, farmhouse interiors, men harvesting guillemot eggs on sea cliffs, and moss soup.

The photos come from Magnus's recently published book, The Nordic Cookbook. The show itself has been given the title Magnus Nilsson's Nordic: A Photographic Essay of Landscapes, Food and People, and when the images are blown up to six by ten feet, they're wonderful to behold.

Well, anyone with an iPhone could take spectacular  photos of the Nordic countryside nowadays, and Magnus knows that. In one of the text panels he remarks that he has always enjoyed taking snapshots, and doesn't care much whether they're good or bad. It's just a record of what strikes him as interesting or beautiful at a given time. 

 The show is given added dimension by the connections with food and cooking. It's a sense of rural simplicity combined with deep knowledge of local plants and animals, a "peasant" environment but with serious craftsmanship, historical patina, and sophisticated tastes.  In viewing the photos, we feel we've once again entered the realm of fairy tales, although the payoff (as it were) comes not at the conclusion to the story, when the frog turns into the prince, but in the majesty of the frog himself ... or the wooden silo, the earthen baking pits, the caribou on the hillside, the eggs in the nest.

 It was a stroke of genius to scatter wooden recipe boxes here and there throughout the exhibit. Each box contains multiple copies of three or four recipes, and each selection is different, so you could emerge from the show with ten or twelve recipe cards and save yourself the $50 cost of the book.

Right now I'm looking at a recipe for smoked eel and scrambled eggs. Here's one for moss soup that reminds me of my Boy Scout days. Then there's the one for Icelandic rye bread, and another for puffin stuffed with cake.  

The back of each card contains additional cooking information along with historical lore. For example:  

 Puffins on the Faroe Islands are most often filled with a sort of cake batter mixed with raisins, sewn shut and braised, or just braised without the cake. The batter can also be wrapped in little pouches of aluminum foil and braised together with the birds rather than inside them. Leave the plucked, gutted and cleaned puffins to soak in cold water overnight before cooking them. They have a peculiar but tasty, fresh-ocean flavor to them, which can grow very strong and a bit heady for my taste if they are not handled well.

 The exhibit was further bolstered by photos taken at his restaurant, a small display of wooden bowls and utensils made by local artisans, and a three-minute video of Magnus himself talking. He seems like a down-to-earth guy, fun-loving, adventurous, and not terribly stuck on himself. (You can read an interview with him here.)

Athough the photo of shark-meat smorebrot near the end of the show was less than appetizing, we were nevertheless keen on getting a snack of some kind at Fika, the Swedish Institute's pleasant café. In the end, however, we decided that there were too many things in the fridge back home that needed to be eaten soon, including some aging green beans and a clump of wilting fresh dill. So we stopped at Lund's on our way home and picked up a few things to flesh out an early summer meal.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The anatomy of a snack - Upton 43

So, you've just gotten done walking around Lake Harriet with a friend, or playing tennis at Beard's Plaisance. You could get a nice thick hamburger and fries at any number of places nearby ... or, if it happens to be somewhere between 3 and 5, you could stop in at nearby  Upton 43 for an unusual snack.

That's the time frame during which they offer their "lounge menu" though you don't have to eat it in the restaurant's dark and uncomfortable lounge. We took a table right next to the window and watched the world go by as we consumed two most unusual snacks.

I ordered the smorgasbord, which consisted of house cured meats, assorted cheeses, pickles, and  garnishes delivered to the table on a thick oak plank. Our waiter identified  the meats as lamb liverwurst and chicken rillettes served with pickles and a mild fruity mustard; the cheeses were a standard brown goat cheese, a chevre, and something a little richer than a tilsit.

Our waiter was new at the job, and very serious about his work. After he'd brought us our orders he was pleased to inform us that "everything is made in house —except the breads, which we source locally."

"Really? You make your own cheese?" I said, a little surprised.

"Well, we get the cheese from a local cheese maker."

"What are these little orange squares?" I asked.

"Those are cheddar bits," he replied confidently. (They turned out to be pickled carrots.)

"What's with these blueberries?" I asked.

"Those are intensified blueberries. We dry them, then rehydrate them, then dry them, over and again and again. It intensifies the flavor."

Whatever had been done to them, the blueberries were extremely flavorful, and firm like a raisin rather than watery like a blueberry. The toast was also unusually tasty, and a bit of the liverwurst spread on top along with a dollop of chevre and two or three blueberries made for a remarkable taste sensation. The other cheeses were also above average. I would characterize the rillette as a little bland, though the mustard and pickles added interest.

It was too early for cocktails, and we ordered  switchels, a type of drink I'd never heard of. The waiter informed us they were very sour. They consist of soda, house-made vinegar, and natural flavorings. Hilary ordered a pear and honey switchel, I went for the quince and rosehip. They were sour indeed—not the kind of drink you gulp down and ask immediately for a refill. But they were also refreshing, and as the ice in the glass melted, my switchel improved.

 Hilary got the gravlax on toast served with egg butter, truffle, and herbs. ( I didn't see any truffles. Maybe a little truffle oil had been swizzled on top.) It came with a salad that was actually a single clump of very fresh lettuce, lightly dressed. The presentation was impressive. Lots of poise in that leaf, lots of art in the wrinkle in the salmon.

It was the kind of snack that you eat slowly, relishing every bite.  I'd love to go back and try the chicken salad “sandwich,” with gooseberries, walnuts, herbs, and tunnbrod, accompanied maybe by a rose vermouth cocktail (strawberries, clear brandy, rosemary, sage, thyme, orange peel, wormwood root, gentian root, grated ginger, vanilla, garancha, ruby port, orange zest).

At that time in the afternoon, there seemed to be no one in the place.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Consortium Carissimi : Il Tirinto

We don't hear much early Italian baroque opera in these parts, but the Consortium Carissimi mounted a production of Pasquini's
Il Tirinto over the weekend at the Ritz Theater in NE Minneapolis, and it was a smash. I have to confess, I'd never heard of this group before I read the listing in the Star-Tribune. To tell you the truth, I'd never heard of the composer or the opera, either. But such productions are almost invariably fun, and the slice of musical history being dished up, which fell somewhere along the flank between Handel and Monteverdi, made my mouth water.
An added selling point was the venue. The Ritz is a tiny neighborhood theater a half-block off University Avenue on 13th Street in a small commercial zone it shares with several restaurants, galleries, boutiques, a few bars, and a microbrewery. It's an unpretentiously arty area, and it retains an attractive vibe that was largely submerged in the north loop by the influx of big dollars a decade ago. The bare bones theater itself, which was refurbished in 2006, is intimate but not too musty, and there's free parking in a large municipal lot across the street.
The opera itself proved to be largely what I'd expected—a mix of conversational recitative and lyrical arias hung on a convoluted romantic plot. Alter the instrumentation a bit and it could be taken for church music. Without much trouble the arias could be turned into art songs. You're unlikely to find Bernardo Pasquini's name in any standard history of opera, but the contribution of the Roman school of which he was a part is described by one scholar as enlarging opera's "possibilities of expression by giving greater scope to pathos, grace, and humor."   
Il Tirinto had grace and plenty of humor, though the pathos was largely striped away in the course of the many twists and turns of the plot.
Ah yes, the plot. Filandro, a nobleman from Crete, is raising his two children, Tirinto and Rosaura. Due to the dangerous political climate, he decides to send his son to the relative safety of Rome, but the ship is seized by pirates and one of them takes Tirinto as a slave. Filandro is bereft by the loss of his son and fears that he's drowned, but nevertheless circulates a letter at the ports where pirates sometimes resupply, seeking news of his son's fate. Tirinto somehow receives the letter, and years later he escapes from the pirates and proceeds to Lazio under the assumed name of Lucimoro. While living in Ariccia, in the hills just south of Rome,  he becomes romantically involved with a young woman named Laurinda.
But Lucimoro eventually  grows restless and returns to Crete to find his father, who has since then left for Rome, also under an assumed name. Four years of searching produce no results, though Lucimoro scores a success of sorts in Crete when he meets and falls in love with a young woman named Rosaura. He has no idea she's actually his sister.
Since her father's departure from Crete, Rosaura has been raised by her uncle, who doesn't want her to marry a "foreigner," and the uncle forces Lucimoro to leave the country. Before departing Lucimoro promises Rosaura that he'll return someday and marry her.
When Rosaura’s uncle dies, her father summons her to Ariccia, where he is now governor. In the mean time, her brother, having been exiled from Crete, also finds himself once again in Lazio. Worn out by travel and endless searching, he decides to make his home on Monte Cavo as caretaker of the Great Altar of Jupiter. Naturally, it's only a matter of time before he bumps into his first love, Laurinda, whom he had abandoned a decade earlier, and also his more recent flame Rosaura.
This is the point at which the opera begins. It isn't important to master the details of the back-story, however, because the plot exploits stock themes of the Commedia del Arte with which we're all familiar. Mistaken identities, love unexpressed, love abandoned, love unrequited, noble birth challenged. We've seen it in Goldoni and Grassi, Shakespeare and Moliere. In theatrical productions the wordplay stands out; in Commedia del Arte productions the characters become caricatures and the pratfalls tend to dominate. But in an opera, the lilt of the music ennobles the otherwise hackneyed course of the plot and allows us to pine and yearn again along with the characters, while also, perhaps, catching an occasional breeze from the sacred groves of Jupiter—breezes that still blow through the leafy hill town of Ariccia on occasion.
 However, the humor of the traditional Commedia has not been altogether removed from the production. During the prologue, set in the Piazza Navona in Rome, some raffish characters discuss their plan to go up to the small town in the hills outside Rome to see the opera while street-vendors hawk their victuals nearby—mostly booze. And during a hilarious scene just after intermission,  two men sit on a bench discussing the merits of the production so far, with which they're not too impressed.
And then there's the coarse old servant named Lisa who always seems to be on the spot, counseling the other characters while often making fun of them behind their backs. It's a "pants" role, and Gary Ruschman (who looks a lot like Bill Murray in drag) charges every scene he's in with ribald humor.
As for the other vocalists, they were uniformly solid and more, from the rich bass of Benjamin Sieverding to the plaintive mezzo of Christina Christiansen. The set—a few benches set among potted topiary trees—was perfectly adequate, and the orchestra in the "pit"—two violins, a basse viole, a violone, bass trombone, lute, harpsichord, and harp—were vigorously conducted from the cembalo by the production's music director, Alesssandro Quarta, who has been conducting similar productions of late Renaissance Roman opera with the Concerto Romano in Rome since 2006.
Aren't we lucky, to be sitting in the fourth row of a tiny theater watching these extraordinarily talented individuals stage an opera that hasn't been performed in maybe 350 years. It's a labor of love as well as art and research, and you could feel it in the air.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Three Tribes

Three Tribes

Hilary and I took the drive to downtown St. Paul the other day to see an exhibit of photographs at the Minnesota Museum of Art taken by a friend of mine, Mike Hazard, over the course of several years. They document the efforts of a group of Hmong men and women to earn their living by means of truck farming on a stretch of Highway 52 south of town. The photos are straightforward, devoid of artiness, focused on faces and plants and work, out of which moments of fun occasionally arise. The earthiness and humanity of the enterprise was obvious.

Yet all the while I was wandering the galleries, my mind kept returning to the issue economics. Do these people earn their living this way? How are the proceeds distributed? Who decided where investments for next year’s crop will go? How did they acquire the land? Was the government involved?

I’ve driven by the plots on Highway 52 more than once, with their little sheds scattered across the hills like brown Monopoly houses, and it’s obvious even to a non-farmer like me that these fields are being cultivated largely by hand. And I have little doubt that I’ve often bought produce and flowers from the women and men in these photographs, or their relatives, at the huge northside Minneapolis farmers’ market, which isn’t far from my house.

It was a pleasure getting to know them better at the exhibit.

Having viewed the photos, I stepped into the little screening room, where another dimension was added to the experience: music. As a succession of slides followed one another on the screen—sometimes several related images side by side—I could hear the traditional drone-like music of the qeej (a Hmong instrument vaguely similarly to overgrown pan pipes) playing quietly in the background, and the fields came to life.

The Hmong is a social group to which I will never belong. The obvious issue of ethnicity aside, I find  its complex clan structure bewildering and its seemingly onerous family obligations daunting. (I bought a car from a Hmong saleman at a Toyota dealer once and while we were waiting for the finance department to prepare some documents he told me all about who gets to be chief and who can marry who.) No, I will never belong to that group, but it doesn’t bother me. I like the Hmong I’ve met and am glad they’re here, not only for the vegetables, or because they made great sacrifices for us during the war in southeast Asia, but because they contribute today to the fiber and interest of American life.

On our way back to the car we ran into a different social group—a ragtag bunch of women and (mostly) men wearing blue T-shirts and ponchos. They were racing up and down the streets, then stopping to examine their mobile phones, then loitering as if they were all waiting for a bus. I couldn’t resist asking one of the men what they were doing.

“What is this?" I said. "A scavenger hunt?”

“Sort of. We’re members of a group, the “blues.” And we’re in competition with another group, an evil one called the “greens.” And we get instructions from Europe or somewhere—”

“Brooklyn,” one of the other contestants interjected.

“OK, Brooklyn. And at certain points the people at headquarters pick up our signals and determine who’s gained control of larger parts of the city. It’s sort of like geocaching.”

The man showed me his little black screen, across which green and blue towers seemed to be dancing. It meant nothing to me. What was clear was that this harmless cohort was having a good time. In fact, they were almost the only people out on the street.

This is a group that I could become a part of, maybe. On the flyer the man gave me it said “Ingress,” followed by the words “The world around you is not what it seems” and then, in larger letters: Join the Resistance.

Resistance to what? There’s a web address on the flyer, too, but I’m afraid that if I entered it, my computer would disintegrate or become possessed by zombies. Or something.

I encountered an even less structured opportunity to “belong” the next day, when Hilary and I took a break during a cycling trip around the parks and creeks of south Minneapolis and stopped in at Global Midtown Market. This concatenation of start-up ethnic restaurants and gift shops, located on the first floor of the old Sears building on Lake Street, is like the State Fair but with fewer people and better food. The sometimes lackluster customer traffic notwithstanding, it’s been operating for quite a few years now, and serves as home for several celebrated eateries including Manny’s Tortas, Salsa de la Salsa, Los Ocampos, Rabbit Hole, Holy Land Deli, and the Salty Tart Bakery, the owner of which was named “Best Pastry Chef” by the editors of Bon Appetit magazine a few years ago. The grocery store in the central atrium is also appealing, though when we visit we’re usually on our bikes and therefore reluctant to buy anything much.

On our most recent visit we ate lunch at Moroccan Flavors, which opened only a month or two ago. The stars of the menu are probably the tagines, but they’re relatively easy to make at home. We shared a spicy marinated chicken sandwich that comes with a small dish of peppery olives and other unidentifiable morsels of vegetable flesh. The mint tea (with fresh mint and lemon) was refreshing, and the kindly, slow-moving woman who made our sandwiches also offered us two very unusual cookies as a “sample.”

© Isabel Subtil for Heavy Table

Appreciating a foreign cuisine is a form of participation, I suppose, but not of belonging. In any case, that’s not what I was thinking about. On our way out of the building we passed a print shop that had been set up in the middle of one of the ancillary hallways. There were a few Xerox machines and paper cutters, perhaps even a binding machine, and also a table holding what were obviously short-run and handmade publications, nicely done.

I love that kind of stuff.

“So, this is a print shop?” I said to the woman with scarlet hair sitting behind the card table in the corner.

“We do print jobs and other things,” she replied. “It’s also supposed to be a community space.”

“I see,” I said, though I didn’t see at all. “I wonder what your rates are. I print a zine occasionally. Do people still use that word?”

“Oh, sure,” she said. “In fact, there’s a zine festival coming up in September.”

“Really? Maybe I ought to get a table. I’m working now on issue 121. When I'm feeling flush I have it printed at FastPrint downtown. More often I print it at home.”

“Well, I don’t know anything about the rates. You’d have to ask Sam. He’ll be in at three.”

As we left she handed me a document, “Beyond Repair No. 1: occasional notes” printed in large san serif type on both sides of a single sheet of nice 11 x 17 paper and then folded into quarters. It got a little battered during the bike ride home, but I took a look at it later.

The cover looks a little amatuerish—perhaps that was intentional—but the text is thoughtful and well-written, and it clarified what sort of a community space Beyond Repair hopes to be. It opened in January and printed and bound twelve publications in its first three months of operation. It also hosted Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, and plans to put out a series called Publics and Publication, which “will go towards proj­ects and programs that ad­dress the role of the 3rd Pre­cinct here in Minneapolis’s 9th Ward.”

Another proposed series, Tools for Remediation, will be dedicated to subjective inquiries and “histories from below,” designed to look “across issues to consider commonalities and propose methods of heal­ing and release from a culture of abuse that permeates everything from our ecosystem to our economy, from race to domestic struggle.”

That slant seems a little radical to me, and its allegations of universal societal oppression and breakdown slightly overstated. (Then again, I’m a middle-class white guy with a house in the suburbs and money in the bank.) What I like is the sober-minded and articulate tone of the piece, and the broader notion that writing and printing and speaking can come together on a very small scale in a retrofitted palace of bourgeois commerce to nurture a community of like-minded individuals whose points of view are not often highlighted in the mainstream press. Weekly discussions have been taking place at the “shop” examining “how one can swim in and out of institutions, power, and hierarchies, find­ing commonality within the in-between, and instrumentalizing that ‘in-betweenness’ as a lens by which to navigate power and hierarchical social space.”

The author of the broadside, who I presume is the owner, remarks:
That notion, being of the world, while simultaneously elsewhere; in, as well as out, of time is exactly the type of thinking that we hope to pro­mote through Beyond Repair…Three other groups are beginning to materialize, all asking in one form or another a com­mon question: “What does a healthy neighborhood look like?”
The beauty of it all is that the associations I’m describing here are voluntary. You don’t have to hang out at Beyond Repair unless you feel like it, or wander the streets of St. Paul “claiming” digital territory, or work your tail off at the family truck farm in Rosemount—though if you're already part of that group, the social cost of apostasy might be high.

For myself, I’ve never been much of a joiner. I don’t like routine, and no sooner have I committed myself to a regimen than (sad to say) I find myself scheming of ways to disrupt its rhythms. I have also found that the mystery and allure of organized social groups tends to fade as you actually get to know the people, which is precisely the point at which you also become a prime candidate for committee work and donations.

As Charels Peguy once remarked, “Everything begins in mystique and ends in politique.”

All of which is not to say that I’m a snob, or antisocial, or cheap. But I really don’t think I’d make much of a splash at the upcoming zine festival. And as for joining the Resistance, my question still stands: resistance to what?

No, my continuing engagement took the form of an order to Red Dragonfly Press, which published Mike Hazard's chapbook of poems, This World Is Not Altogether Bad. way back in 2013. I'd meant to buy it when it came out but didn't have a PayPal account at the time.

It arrived in the mail a few minutes ago. It's nice. The cover was printed on a cold type press, you can see the relief on the page. Red ink on the title. The poems themselves mostly describe encounters with other people--neighbors, friends, veterans, strangers, family members. A phone call from a chubby Ojibwe with fire in his belly, so much so that the poet smells something burning. A few local celebrities appear: Tiger Jack and Feike Feikema (AKA Frederick Manfred). There are elements of whimsy and nursery rhyme-like repetition, waves of remembered Roman Catholicism, various sorts of suffering and forgetfulness, all conveyed with the utmost simplicity and charm.

Here is one:

Suffer Little Children
We were really close
to Jesus Christ on a cross.
Right at his feet, his arms
outspread wide as wings,
my child Sonia wondered
if those were real nails.
Wounded, holding hands,
we were really close
to Jesus Christ on a cross.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Easy Living

Among the generation of alto saxophonists who came of age during the 1950s none was smoother, and few were more consistently inventive, than Paul Desmond. His feathery tone no doubt seemed bland to fans of Jackie McLean or Charlie “Bird” Parker (who died in 1955) but  to a neophyte like me, who came to jazz in the late-1960s, the cuts on Parker’s albums were invariably short, and many of them sounded like they’d been bootlegged off of radio broadcasts.

I’d gotten to know Desmond by way of Dave Brubeck records, though Brubeck struck me as a pounder, and I found Desmond’s collaborations with guitarist Jim Hall more appealing. On the album Easy Living, this duo reached a pinnacle of sustained lyricism that strikes me as extraordinary even today.

Part of the strength of this collection lies in the playlist: “Polkadots and Moonbeans,” “Easy Living,” “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” “Autumn in New York,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” among other standards. At the time, I’d never heard vocal versions of any of these tunes, and therefore didn’t know the words—or the titles. Even today I have a hard time identifying some of the pieces by name, but considered in the aggregate, the album contains a wealth of melodic material and harmonic “changes” on the basis of which Desmond and Hall exchanged some delightfully varied improvisations.

I also liked the album cover. I knew it was kitsch—really, I did!—but all the same, the glamorous woman (reclining) in green sequined dress, the bottle of wine, the grapes, and the leopard-skin rug fit the mood of the album: unabashedly mainstream, relaxed but inventive, inspired but never frenzied.

In promotional photos, Desmond, balding and heavily bespectacled, looked more like an accountant than a late-night improviser, but at the time this wasn’t uncommon, and it seemed to fit his groove. On the other hand, the few pages of his autobiography that have survived in manuscript are filled with wry humor and understated brilliance. For example, he was both a heavy drinker and a chain smoker, but when his doctor  informed Desmond that he had lung cancer, he replied drolly that he was glad to hear his liver was still in pretty good shape.

If any fault is to be found with Easy Living, and with Desmond’s aesthetic more generally speaking, it lies in the consistently even tempos, the seductively feathery tone, and the absence of dynamic range. The same thing might be said of the theme Easy Living ostensibly advances. We may relish the notion of a dreamy life of ease and pleasure, but it’s likely that if such a thing were to fall into our laps, we’d soon become bored and irascible. Life, like music, needs an edge.

Is that really true? And if so, how much of an edge is required? I guess it depends on your temperament. The novelist Valeria Luiselli spoke for many when she remarked, “I’ve never been among that class of people—whom I greatly envy—capable of losing themselves in pensive contemplation of a bird in flight [or] the industrious coming and going of ants.” She describes herself as “too impatient to find poetry in nature’s gentle rhythms.”

I'm of the opposite persuasion, as even occasional readers of this blog might have noticed. I can spend quite a bit of time examining the shape of various leaves in the nearby woods from a position on the deck twenty feet away, taking pleasure in the form and color of each species though I don’t know what many of them are. I find it remarkable that the same plants return again and again to the nearby garden, sprouting magically from the ground in more or less the same place they were a year ago. And watching one of our resident chipmunks nibble his way down the branch of the pagoda dogwood can take up half the morning.

But such enterprises have their limits. And of course there's usually work to do. This morning I found myself with one major book project awaiting final approval from the client, another on hold. I wasn’t inclined to get started on yet a third. (Too much detail for this weary brain.) I made a trip to the farmers’ market, returning home with some eggplants and yellow bell peppers. I cleaned up the kitchen, and by 9 a.m. I was sitting in the den, deep into the letters of Pliny the younger, wherein he describes (for example)  how he fills his leisure hours.
I have spent these several days past, in reading and writing, with the most pleasing tranquility imaginable. You will ask, “How that can possibly be in the midst of Rome?” It was the time of celebrating the Circensian games; an entertainment for which I have not the least taste. They have no novelty, no variety to recommend them, nothing, in short, one would wish to see twice. It does the more surprise me therefore that so many thousand people should be possessed with the childish passion of desiring so often to see a parcel of horses gallop, and men standing upright in their chariots. If, indeed, it were the swiftness of the horses, or the skill of the men that attracted them, there might be some pretense of reason for it. But it is the dress they like; it is the dress that takes their fancy.
But suddenly it all seems a little odd. And odder still to be describing now how I fill my leisure hours, for the pleasure and edification of some unknown reader with too much time on his or her hands.

Yes, the notion of easy living has a long, if spotty, history. From the beginning leisure and scholarship have been intimately intertwined, and in Roman times Stoics and Epicureans debated where the balance ought to lie between otium (peaceful leisure) and negotium (the combative world of politics and the market place). And the pastoral ideal—an individual or a young couple tending sheep on the bucolic mountain slopes—has been a favorite trope of poets, if not of working folk. Daphnis and Chloe epitomize the genre. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga once compared that clutch of images to a second template—chivalric deeds done in service of a high-born lady—and found it inferior. After all, he reasoned, the chivalric ideal inspired durable institutions such as the tournament and the Knights Templar, some of which are still in existence, while, in his view, the pastoral tradition was never much more than an idle fantasy.

But such a judgment rests on the dubious assumption that only events significant enough to appear in the historical record--events that move "civilization" ahead--have real value. It strikes me, on the contrary, that many of the institutions the development of which we celebrate at national holidays were designed to preserve and extend a range of values that are ahistorical in nature. Thomas Jefferson’s most famous phrase—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—has sent echoes throughout the developing world time and again since it was written and proclaimed 250 years ago, but it refers less to a civic ideal or specific bricks-and-mortar institutions than to a condition of peace, domestic tranquility, and recreation that’s largely personal and familial.

Yet how can we be the least bit interested in such things when images of urban devastation in Kabul or Aleppo flood the nightly news? It’s because this dimension of living is precisely what’s being trampled underfoot in those cities, and many others, in the name of a violent crusading ideal.

Art gives us a better view of that world—the world of easy living—than does historical analysis or the nightly news. Even the histories of daily life that have become popular in recent decades concern themselves largely with norms and habits, hardly touching upon the unique kernels of affection, joy, humor, and fellow-feeling that so often animate private life.

Though it ought not to be considered a retreat from or substitute for political engagement or social service, easy living remains, I think, an essential element of mature living, and one to which we too often give short shrift. We can talk about Bernie and Hillary, global warming and "too-big-to-fail" only so long before the air in the room gets stale. Desmond’s sinuous improvisational lines trace a multitude of paths through a more pleasant and no less authentic domain.

And as long as I've wandered this far down such these avenues of musical nostalgia and philosophical insignificance, I might as well continue on and mention that the words to the song "Easy Living," banal though they may be, expose what makes such a condition "easy."
 Living for you, is easy living.
It’s easy to live when you’re in love.
And, I’m so in love,
There’s nothing in life, but you.
I’ll never regret the years I’m giving.
They’re easy to give when you’re in love.
I’m happy to do whatever I do, for you.
For you...maybe I’m a fool, but it’s fun.
People say you rule me with one wave of your hand.
Darling, it’s grand.
They just don’t understand.
Being in love? That's a subject for an extended essay, not a paragraph. The array of people and things to which we can direct our affections is potentially vast, though such sparks of connection are often involuntary and not always easy. Whether it be spending time with our dearest loved ones, reading a new book about Goethe, sharing a celebratory dinner with friends, or examining a boulder covered with moss deep in the woods, an ineffable afflatus elevates us and moves us forward toward we know not what. Lucky us.

"... maybe I'm a fool, but it's fun!"

Billy Holiday recorded "Easy Living" in 1938, but her rendering, as usual, has a melancholy strain. Among the many other vocal versions available, which range in tone from a wistful Peggie Lee to an upbeat Bryan Ferry, let me recommend the boyish and exuberant one that the Coasters released in 1957. It's a lot of fun.

In the end, there is no “theme” underlying Paul Desmond’s now largely-forgotten album. It’s a collection of inspired improvisations on a few standards from an earlier era still, and it might just as well have been called “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” or “Here’s That Rainy Day.”

This is jazz, this is art, and it may be mellow, but wasn’t all that easy to produce. If it were, everyone would have been doing it.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Art-a-Whirl Advice

Billed as the largest neighborhood art crawl in the United States, Art-a-Whirl is a three-day event spread across several square miles of Northeast Minneapolis. It incorporates a number of converted industrial buildings and warehouses with names like Grain Belt, Pillsbury, and Northrup King as well as quite a few smaller studios, galleries, shops, micro-breweries, food trucks, and ad hoc performance spaces.

If you want to have fun at Art-a-Whirl, take my advice: start early and focus on the smaller buildings.

The advantage of starting early is that it's still light out and the outdoorsy, neighborhood feel of the event rings out. The advantage of smaller buildings is that they're not unpleasantly labyrinthine.

We started our tour at the Casket Arts complex. We parked in the parking lot right next to the building and wandered into an expansive ceramic tile studio by way of the back door. We spent an hour or more exploring the light-filled halls of the building, passing all sorts of machinery as well as galleries lined with wood-block prints and oil paintings.

The building has high ceilings and a spacious feel.

We passed jeweler's studios and lithography presses, spoke to wood-carvers about the local walnut and painters about the effects to be gotten from mixing oils with bee's wax.  Snacks and wine were widely available.

My favorite painting was by Linda Seebauer Hansen (see above) who told me she mostly does jewelry. I was also impressed by the work of Eyenga Bokamba (see top).

I took one look at the work of Emily Gray Koehler, and said, "We were in a gallery somewhere in the Upper Peninsula ..."

"Calumet?" she replied.

"That might have been it. And the manager there had some very nice woodblock prints done by his niece, who had recently moved to Minneapolis..."

"That would be me."

"I thought so." 

Hilary bought a few of Emily's note cards, and her husband handed her a sticker that said "I bought art." 

A band was playing in the studio next door. It was good.

And naturally enough, in a city of three million people, we ran into our next-door neighbor and his girlfriend in one of the third-floor studios.

There was more art on view in the carriage house behind the old casket warehouse, and in the broad gravel courtyard a woman was painting a large, dead, upended tree trunk green. It was a beautiful evening, and I felt like I was out in the country somewhere rather than in the heart of the city.

A taco stand had been set up on the far side of courtyard, but we bought a jerk pork sandwich from a food truck out closer to the street. As we stood eating this dinner supplement, I spotted artist-friends Meleah (writer) and Mike (web-designer-turned-metal-sculptor) heading off down the sidewalk with purposeful strides.

We drove a few blocks to the Jackson Flats building, a new, government-subsidized apartment building restricted to bona fide artists near Central Avenue. Our niece, Liza, lives there, and we wanted to say hello and also see some of her new work. She'll be heading to Illinois in a few weeks with partner Luis and son Ellis, where all three of them hope to further their budding careers.

While we were at Liza's studio we chatted with a woman who works at the Como Zoo and has developed an interesting relationship with the orangutans there.

We also swapped some opinions about local restaurants with a tattoo artist who does most of his economic transactions by barter. He was a nice fellow, but he seemed unusually excited about evading taxes, considering that he was living in a tax-subsidized apartment. (Well, that's an old fogy comment if ever there was one. I tend to forget that back when I was living la vie boheme, I once got $4,000 in relocation money from the government for moving out of a shared apartment with a $150 monthly rent. It financed our first trip to France!) 

"If I ever decide to get a tattoo, you're my guy," I said as we left.

By this time my knees were sore from standing around, and I'd had enough art for one evening, but as we were leaving the neighborhood—it was now dark—I spotted the Thorpe Building, or what I thought was the Thorpe Building.

"I think the studio of the guy who did that drawing--you know, the one I'm thinking of using on that book cover--is in that building," I said.

"Well, there's a parking spot right there on the street," Hilary observed. It was too good to pass up.

The doors on the building's loading dock were open, and as we approached I could hear someone inside pounding on a trap set, loudly. Just inside the main door we passed a TV studio where techies were throwing up video effects behind middle-aged people doing karaoke routines. Men and women were passing back and forth through the halls, perhaps a little wilder in appearance than the ones we'd seen at Casket Arts. Perhaps a little more drunk.

I located a directory and got a second-floor studio number which sent us down a very long hall where all the doors were shut and stairs were nowhere in sight. As we walked the drumming grew fainter, which was nice, but I wasn't sure we were getting anywhere until we met up with a man just closing his studio.

When I mentioned the name of the artist we were looking for--Scott Helmes--the man said, "I think he's over in the Thorpe Building. You can see it here out the window. There's a tunnel, but it might be easier to go out and around."

"But I thought this was Thorpe Building."

Another hundred yards of twisting hallway and we were once again out on the street. But which street? I had no idea. It was a major thoroughfare, much more open than Broadway. For an instant I felt like I'd passed through a space warp and emerged in Detroit. It was an oddly pleasant feeling.

The sound of drumming once again filled the air, but these were African drums. A small crowd of people was standing around in a parking lot across the busy street near a food truck with a white canvas awning.

I was still groping for my inner sense of north and south when I spotted Diamonds Coffee Shop. Of course. Central Avenue.

Taking a narrow stairway next to the coffee-shop entrance we reached the studio at long last. The sign on the door said "Hours: Saturday 3 to 5."

 *    *    *

We did venture out again on Saturday but we steered well clear of the Thorpe Building. We visited the Pillsbury A Mill (too swanky and corporate) and the California Building (nice studios and quite a bit of hard-core traditional oil painting on display.)

There was an art glass studio on the sixth floor and a woman making note cards on a Platten press on the first. Among my favorite artists was Donna Bruni, whose studio happened to be the last one we visited.

To judge from these brief remarks, it would seem that my tastes run from slightly stylized, boldly colored woodcuts of animals and natural phenomena to subtle abstractions. As for the middle ground, realistic landscapes, they also appeal to me, but they rarely satisfy for long.

Stepping out into the cool evening air of Northeast Minneapolis, I was once again struck by how easy it is to love the outdoors, but how hard to capture its evanescent moods on film or canvas.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Down South - Up North

"Why not think of something special we can do for your birthday?"

This is a tough question to answer when daily life so often seems a little supercharged. After all, we had just gotten back from a three-day improvisatory ramble through the valleys of southeastern Minnesota, though, to be perfectly accurate, we veered into Wisconsin on day one to have lunch at Gelly's in Stockholm.

We've driven through Stockholm countless times on our way to the Harbor View in nearby Pepin, but I'd never noticed this unprepossessing restaurant before, nor the towering but defunct Texaco sign out front. We might have passed it by once again but Hilary has recently gotten a smart-phone and she noticed it on a Trip Advisor listing. It ranked fourth of four...but no matter.

The food was pretty good. There were a few vintage aprons hanging in the window. "I don't want people to think this is a biker bar," Rebecca told us as she brought me my BLT.

Rebecca herself discovered the sleepy town on the back of her husband's Harley during one of the annual flood runs that have brought bikers to the area since in 1965. The couple bought a few acres outside of town, and when they split up, she got the real estate. She more recently bought the café we were sitting in, and also the dilapidated hotel down the street.

She's going to change the name of the café to Lena's Lucky Star, she told us. She thinks it's better suited to a café with a Texaco Star out front in a town named Stockholm. I have half a mind to send her an email recommending that to heighten the Nordic effect, she ought to offer a cold plate of Ingebretsen's leverpostej with herring and beets on toast.

In the subsequent hours we wandered the valleys and roamed the bluffs of the Mississippi Valley, eventually camping on the edge of the fields at Frontenac State Park where we sat in camp chairs watching the warblers drift through.

The Minnesota parks system has changed their protocols, and this led to the odd situation of me calling an 800 number to reserve a campsite while sitting in the park.

"We're set up at site 37," I told the young man who answered the phone. "Frontenac State Park."

"Frontenac? I'll check and see what's available," he said. "Do you want hook-ups or a primitive site?"

"Like I said, we're set up in site 37."

"OK. I'll see if that's available."

"The park is deserted!"

"It's coming up now. Let's see. Wow. Everything appears to be wide open."

"Like I said..."

There was something comical about the exchange, but when it was over, and I'd given the man my credit card number to secure the site, it occurred to me it had been easier and taken less time than driving back down to the ranger's office would have. It occurred to me only later that someone might have reserved site 37 in advance, sight unseen.

Bad news: the orchard oriole has not returned to the apple tree across the road from the campground host. Good news: we were wandering the fields at dusk when a black-billed cuckoo emerged from the heavy growth of a tree five feet above our heads. He sat there so long, oblivious to our presence, that we decided to leave him in peace and walked on.

The next morning at Whitewater State Park Hilary spotted a peregrine falcon high on the cliffs, and we chatted at length there with a ranger and her son about the fauna of the area.

The blue-winged warbler appeared once again at his favorite fork in the road at Forestville State Park. Plenty of yellow warblers, but precious few red starts. And the bluebells down in the bottomlands of the Root River were oddly sparse.

Well, every year is different. The weather had been mostly gray, mostly cool. Serious rain had been predicted for our second night out, so we rented one of the new camper cabins at Forestville. That was different, in a nice way.

We returned home with 82 birds on our list, an average year: orioles everywhere, soaring pelicans and squawking sandhill cranes, a dazzling red-headed woodpecker, a brash brown thrasher, and several plump white-crowned sparrows among the sightings.

Do something special? With memories of such verdure still vivid, the only thing I could think of by way of new adventures was this: let's go to Duluth!