Saturday, July 14, 2018

Bastille Day Revolutions

Bastille Day is the finest international holiday, and the fact that we can turn it into pretty much whatever we want to exemplifies what we're celebrating—unbridled personal exuberance and creativity—while the holiday's French overtones insure that the end result is something a little more than just another lazy day at the beach.

Hilary and I had planned to play tennis and then watch the World Cup consolation match between England and Belgium, but it was a sparkling morning and by 7:30 we were on our bikes peddling downtown to wander the Walker's arty new sculpture garden.

There was dew on the wildflowers—bee balm, vervain, purple clover. It's only a mile or two from Cedar Lake to the sculpture garden, and soon enough we were wandering inside a brick tower dedicated to St. Lawrence, the patron saint of librarians. The Basilica of St. Mary loomed pleasantly in the distance, exuding a Franco-American Beaux Arts elegance that none of the sculptures in the garden possess. But why should they? Today we have a giant blue chicken and an even larger cherry on a spoon to draw inspiration from.

Be that as it may, the garden is a nice place to wander. But a trip across Hennepin Avenue to Loring Park returns us to a richer past. There's a lake, a bridge ... and the gardens have flowers. We biked our way around the park to the Dunn Brothers Coffee on the south side and picked out a chocolate-filled  pastry to eat on a bench with our take-out coffee au lait. It wasn't pain au chocolat but it was in the vicinity.  

Winding back through the central garden we came upon an old colleague, Lee Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Forest Ecology and Institute on the Environment. He lives nearby and is on the board of the Friends of Loring Park.

"The garden looks pretty good," I said.

"Yes, but there are two dead trees over there in the central hub." I hadn't noticed.

They were having an all-volunteer Saturday morning garden clean-up. (We would have volunteered ourselves, but we had other fish to fry.)

"You've got a Zen-like job for yourself," I said to one of the volunteers.

"Haven't I, though," he said, trying to crack a smile.

Then it was downtown to the Local to see how the match between Belgium and England was going. The English coach had been quoted as saying, "Who wants to play for third place?" But one thing about the athletes themselves is that they don't like to LOSE.

Considering that Nicollet Mall has been under construction for the past two years, it didn't look all that different to me.

We traversed the mall to Washington Avenue, then on to the Guthrie Theater on the spur of the moment to check out the prospects for rush seats to West Side Story.

I'm glad we headed down that way because, although the ticket prospects were nil, the Saturday Mill City Farmers' Market was in full swing right next door. I talked to the authors of a new book about mushrooms at their booth sponsored by the Minnesota Historical Society: "What about pheasant-back mushrooms?" I said.

"Delicious, and unmistakable," they replied.

At the booth next door I sampled some ginger-lime marmalade, and told the vendor I'd had some Smucker's Orange Marmalade on toast for breakfast, in honor of Bastille Day. He smiled, but I had the feeling he was not impressed. The marmalades he was offering were $12 a jar. But it's that kind of market. One woman was selling big bags of flax seed. We bought a few pastries at the Salty Tart booth and listened to a solo cellist trying to buck to animated conversations and the urban breezes.

Our ride back to Cedar Lake was uneventful. There were fewer cyclists, though they tended to pass in large groups--Saturday cycling clubs, no doubt.

We got home just in time to see the recap of Belgium's win over England. Then it was off again to St. Anthony Main to see a French film called Á Voix Haute. It's one of many films about disadvantaged kids being inspired by talented teachers to fulfill their potential, but in this case the kids are already in college, and the skills they're trying to develop are oratorical. One is from Syria, several are from Africa, one walks twelve miles a day from a small town to attend classes. The kids are diverse but uniformly earnest and likable. And there are lessons to be learned about what makes an argument sound or a word or a phrase effective. It choked me up on more than a few occasions.

But Bastille Day would not be complete without some food and wine. Nez Pas? On our way home from the theater we stopped at Surdyk's and picked up some Camembert, a slice of country paté, and a baguette, then sat on the deck with Ravel's piano music wafting out from the stereo through the screen door: Miroir, Le Tombeau de Couperin, Gaspar de la Nuit. I can no longer tell them apart.

I had opened a bottle of cheap white Burgundy, and a copy of Cubist Poets of Paris was sitting on the table beside us. 
The windows of my poetry are wide open
on the boulevards and in the shop windows
The precious stones of light
Listen to the violins of the limousines and the
xylophones of the linotypes
The sketcher washes with the hand-towel of the sky
All is color spots
And the hats of the women passing by
are comets in the conflagration of the evening...

Sunday, July 1, 2018

World Cup Runneth Over

One definition of the game of soccer goes like this: a bunch of men run around in shorts kicking a ball for ninety minutes, and then Germany wins.

Not this year. In the group stage Germany, who won the tournament four years ago, was stunned by Mexico 1-0, and eked  out a 2-1 victory over Sweden on a masterful free kick that ended the game, seemingly righting its wobbly ship. A few days later, however, it suffered a devastating 2-0 defeat to lowly South Korea, a team ranked 57th in the world whose hopes of advancing in the tournament had already been obliterated.

Why, you might ask, was South Korea even included among the 32 teams in the draw?  Because, although many of the world's best teams come from a few regions, for purposes of the tourney the entire world is divided into regions, each of which is given a certain number of slots to fill. That's why they call it the world cup. (It's sort of sweet, don't you think?)

Argentina, the other finalist from four years ago, fared only slightly better than Germany. After enduring a humiliating 1-1 tie with tiny Iceland and a crushing 3-0 defeat to Croatia, it crawled into the knockout rounds by means of a 2-1 victory over Nigeria. 

For many American soccer fans, it came as a great relief that the United States failed to make the tournament entirely, being edged out by Panama and Costa Rica during the regional qualifiers. There was no chance that they'd win it, and their absence allowed the announcers to avoid spending precious time discussing what the U.S. was doing wrong and what they'd have to do better to make the knock-out stage.

It also gave Volkswagen the opportunity to come up with some cute ads advising Americans which foreign teams to root for instead.

When played on the highest level, soccer can be a game of great artistry, vicious brutality, and absurd theatricality. The World Cup is not the highest level...but it's very good indeed, and all of those qualities are on display. After all, many of the stars of the European leagues are there, though they're playing with countrymen with whom they've shared a practice pitch only intermittently during the previous few years. Yet the concomitant rustiness is more than compensated for among fans by the passion aroused by nationalistic sentiments and the preciousness of a once-every-four-years tournament that many nations think they have a chance to win.

And these many nations are probably right. Even when played on the highest level, soccer is often a game of flukes. Let's get real. Deflecting a ball arriving at 100 miles an hour off the top of your head or the shank of your foot into a carefully guarded goal, on the fly, more than occasionally involves an element of luck. The fickle judgment of the referee also plays an important part in the result of many matches. He has the power, by calling fouls inside or near the box, to essentially award goals to either side. Or not.

Yet the actual results of World Cup tournaments have not varied all that much since WWII. Here are the winners: Uruguay, West Germany, Brazil, Brazil, England, Brazil, West Germany, Argentina, West Germany, Brazil, France, Brazil, Italy, Spain, Germany. Considering that more than two-hundred nations participate, that's a very small pool of winners. 

Among those still on their feet this year as we move into the knock-out rounds are Brazil, Spain, England, France, and Uruguay.

Matters of winning and losing aside, what everyone who watches the World Cup wants to see is a beautiful goal. Yet goals are so few and far between that whenever someone actually scores, an element of genuine disbelief is involved. What? It went in? That's amazing!

It's a beautiful emotion, something like finding a present under the Christmas tree ... in June.

Two of the three top stars in the world—Portugal's Renaldo and Argentina's Lionel Messi— were ousted during the first day of knock-outs. Brazil's Neynar, shadowed by his old pal Coutinho, continues his run to redeem Brazil from a devastating 7-1 lost to Germany in the semi-finals four years ago. In fact, Brazil's roster is packed with players that any follower of the Europeans leagues (where most of the world's "talent" plays) would be familiar with. With Germany out, Brazil is the clear armchair favorite.

As you can probably tell, I'm not a genuine soccer fan. I've watched quite a few matches in the last two weeks, ignorant of the subtleties that distinguish a brilliant defensive play from a flagrant foul,  mesmerized by the run of play, usually cheering for the underdog but appreciative of any combination that ends with a ball in the back of the net.

I wouldn't mind seeing Sweden win ... though there's little chance of that. I'd be pleased to see scrappy Uruguay, with Suarez and Cavani up front, knock off Brazil. A trophy run by Mexico would be amazing. Nineteen-year-old Mbappe has given life to a young and talented French squad.

Or why not Belgium? When was the last time Belgium won anything?  

Monday, June 25, 2018

Summer Solstice Reading List

The news from Palomar Observatory is that, yes, the days are now getting shorter again. Should we be sad?

For the last week I've been able to see a pink sky when going to bed and another pink sky the following morning before getting up. That's kind of cool.

Nowadays our "midsummer" festivities seldom go beyond some grilling on the deck with friends, an overnight to a nearby state park, and a bike ride or two.  This year Hilary and I set up camp and walked the trails at Lake Carlos State Park, two hours northwest of the Cities, then unfolded our chairs on the park's deserted beach to watch the tree swallows jive and dart above the water in the waning light. While we were sitting there we spotted a group of women doing "cobra" and "downward-facing dog" on paddleboards out in the middle of the lake.

 Nature has outgrown its freshness, its youthful tenderness, its surprising loveliness, and now exhibits a fulsome vigor. The birds are still singing, but they're no longer showing themselves much. Though various plants will bloom, each in its time, the scene won't change much for the next two months. Our mission—our duty!—is to get out into it.

When not out scouring the countryside (or inside doing "real" work) I have also been doing some reading along these mid-summer lines, and I've come to the conclusion that Nature isn't that easy to write about convincingly. That is to say, reading about plants, animals, landscapes, and natural processes seldom generates the same kind of affection for one's surroundings that being out in them does. Maybe this is because Nature doesn't have a plot. It reaches us as a long succession of amuse-bouches, with a very pleasant soundtrack humming quietly in the background.

Then again, many nature-writers aren't really interested in conjuring Nature's allure. They're drawn to the intricate tidbits of information that help us to "understand" rather than appreciate the natural world. For example, I took a look recently at On Growth and Form, a classic piece of science written by D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson and published in 1942. It's clear from the onset that D'Arcy has profound appreciation for the beauty of natural forms. However, he is less interested in describing these forms in words than in coming up with mathematical formulas that somehow 'capture" them.

He describes the zoologist of his day as "deeply reluctant to compare the living with the ideal, or to explain by geometry or by mechanics the things which have their part in the mystery of life."

D'Arcy expresses a degree of sympathy for this approach, which is, after all,  spurred by curiosity and appreciation, and he admits that the results of such lines of thoughts can have interest.

"[The zoologist] has the help of many fascinating theories within the bounds of his own science, which, though a little lacking in precision, serve the purpose of ordering his thoughts and of suggesting new objects of inquiry. His art of classification becomes an endless search after the blood-relationships of things living and the pedigrees of things dead and gone. The facts of embryology record for him ... not only the life-history of the individual but the ancient annals of its race. The facts of geographical distribution or even of the migration of birds lead on and on to speculations regarding lost continents, sunken islands, or bridges across ancient seas. Every nesting bird, every ant-hill or spider’s web, displays its psychological problems of instinct or intel­ligence. Above all, in things both great and small, the naturalist is rightfully impressed and finally engrossed by the peculiar beauty which is manifested in apparent fitness or “adaptation"— the flower for the bee, the berry for the bird."

But in the end, D'Arcy rejects this approach, which, as he remarks at one point, "deals with ephemeral and accidental, not eternal nor universal things."

At that point, I reject D'Arcy. In the first place, how could any thinker equate eternal and universal things with statistical analysis? D'Arcy is infatuated with Fibonacci numbers and considers it worthwhile—one example among many—to reproduce a chart of "mean apparent length of one-year-old herring, as deduced by scale-reading from herring of various ages or 'year-classes.' "

"The whole subject is very difficult, " he writes, "as we might well expect it to be, and I am only concerned to show some small part of its difficulty."

Difficult? Perhaps. Interesting? Not in the slightest. The eternal and universal can be perceived far more easily and clearly in a single tendril of a pale green vine reaching out to wrap itself around the branch of a nearby shrub. It's path doesn't follow an arc or a spiral; it's much more elegant than that.

Nowadays the authors of works of natural history and popular science make less of an effort to approach the phenomena of Nature with slide-rule in hand. I dipped into The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman and was delighted by the concatenation of recently discovered facts about bird behavior she has gathered together. On the other hand, I'm not fond of the "scientists have shown that" terminology that invariably accompanies these reports. After all, no one who watches birds, even just out in the back yard, has ever considered them "dumb." And I'm afraid that too much specific information about neurons, genetics, vocal chords, and flight patterns might undercut the charm that these creatures so often possess.

I prefer a more poetic approach. Here the challenge lies in somehow avoiding generalities and making a few details stand for a larger whole. I brought a thick book of Antonio Machado's poems out on the deck a few nights ago. It was the perfect book for the evening ... bordering on the soporific. For example:

... the wind blows in squalls,
and between clouds and clouds
are patches of indigo sky.

Water and sun. The rainbow gleams.
In a remote cloud
a thread of yellow lightning.

The rain batters the window
and the panes chime.

In the midst of the haze
shaped by the fine drizzle,
a green meadow emerges
and an oak forest blurs
and a mountain ridge is lost...

Though nothing is very specific, this sounds very much like experience to me. But having read one page, I'm likely to sit back and stare off into space with an inaudible but satisfied "hmmm" on my lips.

Let me assure you, I had no intention of systematically surveying a variety of approaches to writing about nature. Maybe it was just that after a few pleasant hours outside, I naturally selected a book off the shelf, time and again, that would preserve the mood of semi-detached reverie rather than suck me into that vortex of conflicting emotions that drive so many works of fiction.

Whatever the case may be, the other day I took a look at Mute Objects of Expression (1974) by the French poet Francis Ponge. In the introductory pages of this squarish paperback Ponge espouses a radical devotion to the think he chooses to describe, eschewing the limpid turns of poetic phrasing that might naturally come to mind.
From now on, [he writes] may nothing ever cause me to go back on my resolve: never sacrifice the object of my study in order to enhance some verbal turn discovered on the subject, nor piece together any such discoveries in a poem.
Always go back to the object itself, to its raw quality, its difference: particularly its difference from what I’ve (just then) written about it.
May my work be one of continual rectification of expression on behalf of the raw object (with no a priori concern about the form of that expression)...Recognize the greater right of the object, its inalienable right, in relation to any poem ...
This approach raises some thorny epistemological questions, of course. Does the poet, at any time, have a direct, objective, and unmediated awareness of his or her "object"? Can a description capture a thing faithfully, in the raw? I think not.

The essay/poems that follow take up, describe, or inquire after a variety of "things," including a wasp, birds, a mimosa tree, and a carnation. Ponge seems to be tussling with his own wayward imagination as he puts forth an adjective or a verbal phrase intended to convey some aspect of the creature or element under review, and as a result, the pieces often have a tone of playful nonsense.
Mimosa (prose poem). - A single spray of the hypersensitive golden chick plumes, seen through binoculars two kilometers down the lane, pervades the house. Full blown, the little mimosa balls give off a prodigious fragrance and then contract; they have lived. Are they flowers of the rostrum? Their speech, unanimously heeded and applauded by the throng with nostrils wide, carries far:


Combs discouraged by the beauty of the golden lice born of their teeth! Lower yard upper yard of rooted ostriches, erupting with golden chicks. Brief fortune, young millionairess with dress fanned-out, tied at the base, fluttered in bouquets ...

Within this play of free associations, the mimosa itself returns to our attention repeatedly--presuming we already know what a mimosa sprig looks like!
I kind of like it.
But I think some benevolent editor ought to change the title of Ponge's collection: not Mute Objects of Expression but Mute Objects of Affection.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Qing Dynasty Comes to Minneapolis

The featured exhibit currently at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts—the one you have to pay to get into—is devoted to artifacts from the Qing Dynasty. It has drawn widespread interest less for the artworks on display than for the way the items are displayed. Gone are the wordy placards, gone are the chatty headphone monologues. In their place we're left with a single program handout and a lot of nameless things to look at, accompanied by a wide array of piped-in music, unusual wall-coverings, variable lighting, and an unexpected thunderclap or two.

All of these trappings are the creation of Robert Wilson, whom, if I had been asked during a pub quiz, I might have identified as the lost Beach Boy. In fact, Wilson is a renowned theater, dance, and opera designer.

Visitors are lead into the first room of the exhibit in groups and told to sit on a bench in darkness. On the opposite wall, high up on the left, they will see a black vase, illuminated from above by four small bright lights. Some sort of meditative music fills the room, and it's pleasant sitting there in the dark with a bunch of strangers.

I was the first guest in our group to get up and walk over to the vase. It wasn't easy to see, even up close, due to the glare of the tiny lights, and whatever beauty it had was lost to me. It's described in the flier as a nineteenth-century object, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn someone had bought it recently at Pier 1. 

The strength of this introductory room lay in the peace and control it exerted. It was pleasant to imagine that when the doors were finally opened and we were allowed to move into the next room, it would be largely empty. There would be no one pressing in behind us, we would have lost our own anticipatory haste, and we'd be ready to look at things, one by one, with a calm, discerning, and appreciative eye.

Indeed, the second room was as brightly lit as the first had been dark. The room had a strangely pleasant brightness, like a scene from Interstellar.  Arranged in a matrix on shelves in a second square of walls inside the room were all sorts of "Chinese" things—incense-burners, mirrors, hats, pom-poms, religious effigies. I didn't know what half of them were, but most of them looked pretty cool. And as if that weren't enough, there were many more artifacts depicted in a similar matrix on the walls of the room.

The next room contained five exquisite robes. The walls were covered in straw. The next had robes, hats, furniture, and other items associated with women during the Qing Dynasty. The walls were covered in very reflective aluminum foil. I wouldn't bet my life on it, but I think "Tuche de gel sei cinta" from Puccini's Turandot was playing in the background.  

I think you get the idea. A throne room. A Daoist "cave" with scrolls. Especially effective, due to the lighting, was the room with five Buddhist statues.

I'm not sure that the darkened room nearby devoted to the common man was entirely effective. It was large, but contained only a single figurine, maybe 6 inches high.

But the biggest misfire, I think, was the final room, which was devoted to light, as opposed to the darkness of the first room. (You know, yin/yang?) It contained a single pale green jade vase, but was otherwise filled only with the cheery sounds of a British music hall number. That really didn't fit. Yet, it was "light" music. Better, I think, would have been some koro music by Toumani Diabate and the New Ancient Strings.

In short, I liked the show. And reading over the program later, I became aware of all sorts of connections between the rooms that hadn't occurred to me. I'm not sure the exhbit is quite worth the admission charge ... but the rest of the museum is free, for heaven's sake,and you could easily spend weeks exploring its many permanent and temporary exhibits.  

We stepped over a few feet to an exhibit called Boundless Peaks: Ink Paintings by Minol Araki.

Also very good stuff.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Deep Library Impact

All sorts of dreadful expressions enter the language simply as a result of being used over and over again by people who don't know any better. But I feel I must protest when an institution of literature, learning, and community outreach—I'm referring here to the public library system—encourages such practices in their widely distributed promotional emails.

I received a fund-raising appeal not long ago from the Hennepin County system in which recipients were encouraged to give money on the basis of a patron's enthusiastic claim that --

 This single remark appears in letters several inches high in the midst of an otherwise standard email. But this was an email from one of the most highly respected library systems in the country, responsible for the vocabulary enrichment of hundreds of thousands of young and innocent readers. I felt that something needed to be done.

I sent a courteous note to the library suggesting that the word "impactful" was a strange conglomerate not worthy of appearing in an epistle designed to solicit money for an institution claiming to serve the long-term interests of its patrons. 

And I actually got a reply.     

Greetings, John,

Thank you for reaching out to us! As always, we welcome all feedback regarding the language used in our materials, and “impactful” can certainly be a word that is controversial in terms of how it is received. Merriam Webster has an interesting article about it here on their website if you are interested in reading it. You are not alone in having strong feelings about that particular word choice! 

Again, we appreciate you taking the time to send us your response, and completely agree that language skills require continual emphasis in today’s culture. We hope that access to and support of our Libraries will help our community members grow in that regard.

Thank you again for your thoughtful feedback, we will certainly take it into consideration in our future writings!

As I'm sure you noticed, there's quite a bit of evasiveness and double-talk woven into the fabric of that cheerful response. In essence, what it says is, "We got your email. Thanks. Follow this link."

Naturally, I followed the link to the Merriam-Webster site, but what I found there did little to assuage my concern. Another light-hearted salvo seemed unavoidable.

Greetings library friend (I wrote),
First of all, thanks for taking the time to respond to my note.
You are going to think me a crashing bore with too much time on his hands, but I find word usage interesting, and have a few further thoughts to share with you if you have the time. Please consider them as speculative and curious rather than in any way haughty or irate.
It's true, as you observe, that many people share my view of "impactful," and the link was indeed interesting, as you suggested. Yes, the word has been around for quite a while. Yes, it's a "real' word. Yes, many people hate it. However, there are good reasons why many people hate it. I'm afraid the article only skims the issues involved without bringing serious thought to bear on any of them.
It touches on the semantic issue by remarking: " Another complaint leveled at impactful is that it's not a well-formed word: -ful means "full of," and impactful does not mean "full of impact."
The authors of the article try to wiggle out of this argument by observing that " -ful doesn't only mean 'full of.' It also means (among other things) 'characterized by,' as in playful and tasteful."
Not true. Playful means "full of play" and tasteful means "full of taste." In any case, impactful doesn't mean "characterized by impact." It actually does mean "full of impact."
But impact isn't a thing. It's actually an event. We use the phrase "point of impact" to describe the place where a projectile hits a target, for example, or where an artillery shell lands. A dent or a hole may be left behind, but the impact itself is fleeting. More to the point, we might also say that a speech or a film has significant impact. But there is little meaning in the notion that a mortar shell, an automobile collision, or a speech, is "full of impact." Such an expression creates the confused impression that the thing in question is "full of hitting something else."
An "impactful" moment during the battle of Ypres
Hitting it for good or for ill? We really don't know. The word "impactful" is value-neutral. I ask you, why would anyone choose such an awkward and imprecise word, when he or she could describe the speech-book-film-institution-whatever as beautiful, profound, thought-provoking, insightful, shrewd, mind-blowing, life-changing, nourishing, and so on.
The authors of the article you mention take up that issue, too, but once again fail to meet it squarely.
We read, “But since when does English like to limit itself? Synonyms abound, and most of them avoid the opprobrium that impactful endures.”
Once again, the issue is being avoided rather than addressed. The problem with "impactful" isn't just that it's widely hated. The problem is that it's inferior in clarity and depth of meaning—and also in sound, by the way—to scores of other words describing the same phenomenon. The best reasons not to use "impactful" are that  it's hard to say, it conveys little meaning, it lacks clarity, and just to round things off, it sounds "dumb."
“The library is one of the most impactful, far-reaching institutions in our community.”
The phrase doesn't signal the end of the world; it's more like fingernails on a chalk board. All the same, libraries really ought to promote clarity of expression and avoid jargon, don't you think?
What Amy meant to say, I think, is that she has personally been affected in a positive way by her visits to the library, and perhaps also by participating in the outreach programs it offers. Beyond that, she has observed that the library has had a similarly positive impact on other patrons.
Alas, that's not a catchy slogan. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Art of the Wasted Weekend

Hilary and I drove down to the Prior Lake Library the other day to say hi to some of her old friends and to hear local luminary Patricia Hampl read from her new book, The Art of the Wasted Day. We picked up some food at the deli of a Byerly’s in Bloomington on the way down, and we sat in the car high on a hill in a park above the lake watching a new generation of kids swing and skateboard and hand-over-hand across the monkey bars as we ate our mediocre meals before the event.

I had imagined that Hampl’s presentation would focus on the “art” of wasting a day—an art of which I consider myself a past master—but the sections she read focused largely on her Catholic childhood and how unhappy she was when she learned that daydreaming was included among the activities listed as sinful in the Baltimore Catechism she had to study for more than a year before her first communion. In another passage, she went on to explain that although the Declaration of Independence celebrated Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, the emphasis usually fell not on the happiness, but on the pursuit.

Perhaps the best anecdote Hampl shared was of working at the Minnesota Daily with the editor she describes as “the best I ever had”: Garrision Keillor. She was eighteen, he was twenty-two. One day she was frantically complaining of an approaching deadline and he caught her up short: “Having trouble with a deadline?’ he said in his mellow, authoritative voice. “You’d better slow down.”

Though Hampl is well past retirement age, she continues to teach at the U of M and has won enough grants and fellowships to found a neighborhood bank, yet it seems she still has precious little free time on her hands. Evidently she never slows down. Or doesn’t know how.

I’ve worked on the fringes of the publishing world for several decades now, and have heard nothing but good things about Hampl, whom her friends call “Trish.” More than a few of her blurbs have passed across my desk and onto the back cover of books I’m formatting, and they’re invariably distinctive, thoughtful, quotable. She has obviously spent some time on them. To judge from the autobiographical passages she read the other night, she has difficulty saying no to these and other requests, but also finds it hard extending the generosity she lavishes on others to herself. While her off-the-cuff remarks before and after the reading were witty and insightful, the texts she read seemed a little anxious. Sure, they were leavened with self-depreciatory humor, but such a posture eventually wears thin. At that point it’s time to drop the guilt and indecision and uninhibitedly WASTE A DAY.

Of course, other parts of the book might describe such occasions; Hampl mentioned in passing that one of the later chapters describes a trip she took down the Mississippi with her husband in a houseboat. And as I recall, her early book of poems, Resort, nurses similar themes to a mellow conclusion. In short, the reading did what readings are supposed to do: encourage us to move more deeply into the byways of the book.

Another humorous aside Hampl offered had to do with fans who tell her with feverish enthusiasm, “I read your book last night.” “What?” she’s tempted to reply. “I spent years working on it, and you read it in one night!?”

This book has been a long time in the works. I first heard about it at a book convention in 2014, when  Marly Rusoff mentioned it to me. “Trish is doing a book called The Wasted Day,” she said. “It sounds like something right out of your Macaroni.” 

I was reminded of that remark at the reading, and just a few minutes ago I dug up a few of the earliest print issues of Macaroni from a file cabinet in the basement. The summer 1990 issue is entirely devoted to just such a day.
Reading it made me want to cry. It was written by someone with interests and sensibilities similar to mine, but with a certain naiveté and a lot more daring and flair, as if he'd just been reading Blaise Cendrars or Paul Desnos.
These last few days have put my own wasted-day artistry to the test. Hilary is out of town, and I have quite a bit of time on my hands. Sure, I have books to edit and a website to update. I also came up with a List of Things I Might Do while Hilary is Out of Town, to wit:
- Reseed the front yard
- build a new planter for the deck
- transplant some hostas and violets out into the fringe of the back yard where nothing seems to grow except moss
- re-attach the spice rack to the kitchen wall
- organize the CDs (an all-day job)

My double-stacked CD mess

But I can't help feeling that I'm spinning my wheels. These expanses of solitude are a rare gift, and they ought to build like afternoon thunderheads into abject torment followed by sudden flashes of insight. 
It isn't happening. Here are a few of my recent "reflections"—you be the judge:
- A pleasant morning picking up some groceries at Cub for a quinoa/black bean salad, some manure and top-soil at Ace hardware.
I just got done transplanting some hosta and periwinkle... Nothing is more fun than that ... and a buckeye tree that returns faithfully year after year that we initially admire and later cut down because it's in the wrong place.
Then I fetched an old copy of Making Things Grow Outdoors by Thalassa Cruso from the basement. Now largely forgotten, Cruso was once considered the Julie Child of the gardening world, perhaps because she had a TV show. When I first read her I admired her style, conversational yet slightly elevated.
- It's a hot afternoon. I'm on the deck with a glass of fizzy water enlivened by a splash of Campari. I played tennis briefly with a friend at noon—horrible courts in Bryn Mawr. Still, it was good to get out into the day.
- A quiet evening. Dipping into a musty copy of Gabriel Marcel's Creative Fidelity that I got in the mail the other day, I come upon this remark:
I think I may say without exaggeration that my whole philosophical career has been devoted to the production—I dislike using that physical term—of currents whereby life can be reborn in regions of the mind which have yielded to apathy and are exposed to decomposition.
And a few pages later:
Philosophy provides the means for experience to become aware of itself, to apprehend itself—but at what level of experience? and how can such a hierarchy be established or defined?...we must distinguish not only degrees of clarification but degrees of intimacy with oneself and with one's surroundings—with the universe itself.

It's time to quit being disappointed by the fact that you're not doing anything interesting with your free time. You can no longer claim it's because you have too many commitments. It must be because your mind is a BLANK!

It's getting dark, a little windy, as if a storm were approaching, maybe a tornado on a hot evening like this. The branches are going a little wild.

- We must not forget how beautiful the trees were up north, pale yellow,  just leafing out. The winding road on the way up to the top of Giant's Ridge. Deep pines, pale aspens. Hints of Colorado.

- Now I hear thunder. Time to shut down and unplug the computer.

- It's raining harder now. Moderately. I've got the door cracked open a few inches. It's cooled off quite a bit out there. Gentle thunder. Deep thunder. But the sky looks lighter in the west. A good rain.

- When I dip into Marcel, I feel that his methods are sound and his conclusions are subtle and valid. When I dip into Kierkegaard, I feel that he's just talking to hear himself talk. He relishes the feverish cleverness, the irony, but isn't taking the issues at hand seriously.
Am I taking the issues seriously? Not really. What are the issues at hand?


Up at 5:15. Well, I went to bed at 9. Books at my bedside: Concluding Unscientific Post-Script, William Gass's Tests of Time, Marcel's Creative Fidelity, Everybody's Pepys. But nothing held my interest except the yellowing bookmark I found in the Kierkegaard. "Discount Records $12.99. at 10:41 a.m. on March 16, 1985."

CDs weren't widely available then. Someone bought an LP. Was it me?

Max Frisch might have spun an entire novel out of that receipt. Which reminds me that I never read Wilderness of Mirrors or I'm Not Stiller, though both books are right here on the shelf ...

It rained all night, as far as I can tell. I ought to get out and spread some grass seed on those bare spots. No task seems more futile to me than over-seeding a wretched lawn. But it might be more pleasant to do it barefoot, before the sun comes up. (I have heard that grass seed germinates better that way.)


Marcel " "The mystery [of the life to come] is of such a nature that its rejection deprives human life not only of its principal dimension but also, little by little, of its entire significance and depth."


A beautiful male cardinal has been jumping around the lip of the bird bath for the last five minutes, warily turning his head in every direction. Just now he took the plunge, splashed around in the pool for about twenty seconds, and then flew off. For myself, I'm warily circling around any number of projects but remain unengaged, unwilling to take the plunge on one thing and give up the likelihood of pursuing something else.

No sooner do I write these words than I leap up with determination to continue work on the wooden planter I'm making to replace the one that rotted here on the deck. The minute I head into the garage to get the lumber the miasma lifts and my life once again has purpose. After sawing through two 1 x 12s, I'm reminded that the last time I did this I threw my back out. That's enough for today.


Right around 4 o'clock the mood changes. Whatever you have or haven't done, you're entering a freer zone, beyond tasks or apologies. It's like getting home from work.


Marcel again, in delicately humorous mode: "Just when we want an exact statement as to what "spirit" really is, people generally remain vague to the point of impoliteness ..."

Marcel's meditations on death are subtle, but I don't think they would mean much to someone who's actually dying. I'm thinking of my dad, who lost his capacity for speech in his final months. In the end he was reduced to being wheeled around in a wheel chair with a bewildered look on his face, and our job was to do our best to preserve his dignity, to remind him who he had been, and perhaps still was.

Marcel rejects Heidegger's famous theory of "being toward death," arguing that it's based on a primitive and false notion of the relationship between my body and my self. At a later point he observes that "the man of authentic existence in Heidegger's mind is not the man who truly lives with other people, but rather a man 'who knows true life only in dealing with himself.'

Marcel's own views can be reduced to four concepts—attentiveness, availability, participation, and hope—all of which flourish in human company. I was going to say "in society" but society is an abstraction that tends to depersonalize things. Marcel elevates hope to the level of a theological virtue. I suspect he sees it as an attitude or orientation or personality rather than a theory about living to be either proven or invalidated. 

In another essay Marcel quotes Martin Buber approvingly:
"A philosophical view of the world built on time can never quite convey the same feeling of safety that one built on space can."
The trouble is, we live in both space and time, and our worldview must account for both. Hampl touched on this point during her reading, reiterating a piece of her father's wisdom. There are three phases of life, he told her—youth, middle age, and "You look good!"

It got the biggest laugh of the night, and there's some truth in it.

Many years ago a friend of mine told me: Old age begins at 80. At the time I had no idea what he meant—I would have proposed 65 as a good threshold—but he was a cardiologist and had seen lots of very old people. He merely meant that at that age everything begins to fall apart. It's a matter of physiology.

But be that as it may, "You look good!' is more than mere flattery or dissimulation. When we meet up with someone we've known and loved for decades, our vision extends beyond physiology to encompass a rich history and a glow of enduring affection. It's true. You do look good.


I seem to be settling in, in so far as I'm still awake at 9:30. Hoping to keep the "sprit" alive, this afternoon I declined a friend's invitation to sample a few rare wines from Columbia and also deferred a proposal for a round of golf to next week.


Saturday. An early morning bike ride around the 16-mile loop at Elm Creek, before the day gets hot. It was almost chilly in the shadowy stretches. The choke-cherries are in bloom. Lots of birds singing: yellowthroats, red-eyed vireos, five or six veerys, an oriole or two, and at least twenty clay-colored sparrows. I brought my binoculars and stopped once or twice to ferret one out—they sit on bushes out in the fields, usually at eye level—but I never saw one.

The next stop on my morning outing was the bridge over Bassett Creek a few blocks from our house. That's where I sample water clarity as a "citizen scientist" for the DNR. I checked the creek yesterday because of the rain, which tends to stir things up, and the reading was terrible: 22cm, one of my worst readings. This morning, on the other hand, it had already risen to the maximum reading, +100 cm. That surprised me.

It has also surprised me again and again, over the years, that as people pass by me on the bridge, they don't seem the least bit curious. Of course, they're often engaged in their own conversations. But if I were to spot someone standing on a bridge with a long plastic tube and a yellow bucket on a rope, I'd be likely to stop and ask him what he was doing.

This morning, things were different. While I was lowering the bucket into the creek, a young man rode up on his bike and stopped. Maybe that's because (as I soon learned) he works as a geologist for the DNR. His name was Ron. He had a long last name that I didn't quite catch.

"Is that Romanian?" I asked.

"Close. Guess again."


"You're almost there ... Lithuanian."

A minute later his wife arrived pushing a baby in a stroller equipped with an umbrella, from which I deduced that they had not come far. (That also explained why he'd stopped on the bridge.)

"Do you live nearby?" I asked.

"We live in Robbinsdale, just north of here on Wirth Parkway."

"I live up that way, too, by Margaret Mary Church in Golden Valley. Right at the top of the hill." 

Then I said, "Is Robbinsdale getting cool, or what?"

He smiled. "We like to think there are some businesses going in that care about quality..."

"Well, you've got that brewery, Wicked—" I couldn't think of the name.

"The Wicked Wart."

"Yeah, and then Travail, of course." I thought I'd pronounced the name properly, in the French manner, but evidently that's not how you're supposed to say it; he corrected me.

"I haven't eaten there since they started issuing tickets," I said. "The food was good ... but the music was too LOUD."

Ron just smiled.

Just then his wife chimed in: "There's a new place downtown called Nonna's. They have a breakfast bowl that's to die for."

Another couple had come up beside me, and as Ron and his wife headed off and I began pouring the bucket of water into the tube, the man said, "Turbidity."

For a split-second I wasn't sure what "turbidity" meant! I like to think I'm measuring how clear the water is, but I suppose you could just as well put it the other way around. 

"This creek has really gotten cleaned up," the man said. "You never used to see fish in here."

"Mostly what you see now are suckers," I said.

"But there's some shiners down there right now. Do you see those flashes of light near that log? They were never here before. They've cleaned up the creek all the way into Crystal. Do you know about that project?"

"Well, I've seen the big signs they put up. There was one right there in front of that willow." I pointed. "And I've seen the embankment rolls they put down and the rock walls they built just upstream from here. On the other hand, thirty years ago that lagoon was full of water most of the time. Now it's mostly a muddy island except during heavy rain."

"Maybe that's the idea," he said. "Water collects there during heavy rain rather than flooding over the parkway like it used to do." Good point.

Just then a spotted sandpiper flew past. He arched back and forth over the creek in front of us several times. A beautiful flier, always keeping his wings low and stiff.

"There's a spotted sandpiper," I said.

"A what?" his wife said.

"You won't believe what I've seen here, three times," I said.

They both looked at me.

"A mink."

I don't think they believed me.


My next stop was Eat My Words Bookstore, just across the Mississippi in Northeast. I'd been carrying a box of books in the back seat for quite a while. "Scott will be in soon," his daughter said. "Just put it on the table over there."

I took a quick look around the shop. As usual, the titles that jumped out at me were the ones I recognized because I sold to Scott in the past. Should I buy back that copy of Jerusalem Delivered with the blank pages at the end that I bought in Santa Fe years ago but never even glanced at before reselling? He wants $5. I always considered that blank signature as an inside joke. No one reads Jerusalem Delivered cover to cover. Look at me. I stuck with Orlando Furioso through two thick paperback volumes but gave up two cantos from the end.

My final mission took me to the opposite end of town, to North St. Paul, which might well be considered the Robbinsdale of the metro's East Side. Friends had been telling me for years about an eccentric wine merchant who dealt in "bin ends" that he bought wholesale and sold at a discount at a little shop called BrightWines. But "shop" isn't the right word to describe his business. Wines sit in stacked cases or on home-made pine shelves. The space has no windows and it's dark inside, but that doesn't matter much because prices aren't marked.  

It's a very "personal" operation. Marcel would have approved.

Here's how it works. I step inside and a disembodied voice from the office says "Hello." A tallish man appears with a friendly, squarish face and thick head of hair lined with a few fine streaks of gray. A youthful forty-five? I shake his hand. "I'm on your email list but I've never been here before."

"Welcome," he replies. "I'm Dave."

"I was looking over your offerings, and I'm interest in the Phantom..."

"Oh, the deep, rich, California chardonnay from Bogle. I've got it right here."

"And what about that red from Languedoc you mentioned in the newsletter?"

"Oh, yes. Parker gave in 91 points. You'll love it."

Bottles begin to go into a box. By the time we're through I've assembled a case consisting of Mas Champart Saint-Chinian Causse de Bousquet 2012, Brunelli Poggio Apricale Toscane 2106, Mâcon-Chaintre Reserve des Rochers 2015, Bila-Haut Cote de Roussillon 2105, Clos de Fleur Sonoma County Chardonnay 2102, and the 2016 Bogle Clarksburg Phantom Chardonnay that I mentioned earlier.

If you've never heard of these wines, don't worry. I haven't either. But the hope is that the Rosso de Montelcino will have a hint of the much more expensive Brunello from that region, and that the Mâcon-Chaintre will be a step above the more generic Mâcon-Village.

In any event, they sure sound pretty.  And in case you're wondering, the prices range from 7.99 to 14.99. I might have avoided the Clos de Fleur if I'd known it was six years old. Then again, it was the cheapest of the lot. Take a chance!

Driving through North St. Paul brought back memories from my youth. The village I grew up in, Mahtomedi, is nearby. It had only a single store worthy of the name, Ralph's Grocery, and we used to drive to North St. Paul to get our clothes and shoes at Miller's. Miller's is long gone, but the town's main street now has more trees and perhaps more bars, though it's hard to tell—at age thirteen, I wasn't paying much attention. As I crossed highway 36 I went past the high school, where I was once forced to play a doubles tennis match on hardwood gym floors in front of the entire team. The ball skids a lot more on that surface, but the North St. Paul team had been practicing on it for weeks.

Ah, the humiliations of youth.