Friday, August 28, 2009


I sometimes wonder (sometimes—like right now) whether the most pleasing thing in the world is the sensation of cool breeze blowing in the window past the computer while the wind rustles through the leaves outside and the crickets (or cicadas, or whatever) make their incessant trill in the dark.

Robins are flocking, and that’s a sure sign that fall is coming on.

In an effort to seize the vanishing glory of summer, as it were, we’ve been down to the Minneapolis Farmers Market a few times (ten minutes from the house) and it’s a glorious scene. Vegetables, cut flowers, smoked trout, Hmong handicrafts and tapestries, locally produced soap and honey, French bread, smoked sausages. And the market—thank God—has never been gentrified, never lost that wonderfully urban, seedy quality. You park under the freeway bridge or along the roadside not far from Soul’s Harbor or the Litin party-favor warehouse showroom.

On a recent visit I was enchanted by the leeks. One dollar for a nice bunch. But we tried out a new recipe from an old cookbook. I can’t call it a mistake, because trying something new is never a mistake, but we should have known better than to match that very fine vegetable with a “sweet” crust, evaporated milk and cream cheese. The leeks themselves were good, and their appeal was not to be entirely obliterated, but as for the rest of the ensemble….

It rained this morning, and it was Friday, and we were able to park easily right among the stalls at the farmer’s market. The eggplant looked good—and you’ve got the buy the eggplant, if only in honor of Provence.

Eggplant is surely one of God’s strangest vegetables—it isn’t even good for you. But somehow, you love the challenge, and the way eggplant absorbs the flavors of the capers and tomatoes. Once again, a new recipe from an old cookbook. All the while we were making the dish, I was thinking of a tried-and-true caponata recipe that had cocoa among the ingredients. But new is good—except I should have recognized that when the recipe calls for red wine vinegar and sugar, you might as well use balsamic vinegar.

The caponata we made was fine. And the bread from Rustica bakery really saved the day. We listened to Vicente Amigo and El Pele on the phonograph—perhaps because I’d run into the flamenco dancer Susana de Palma at the liquor store earlier in the afternoon. And then, while we were sitting on the floor in the kitchen, Hilary fell asleep as I was reading out loud an essay by the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce called, “Why We Cannot Help Calling Ourselves Christians.” Lots of Kant and Hegel in that one, as usual. Yet the nod to the man from Nazareth was heartfelt just the same.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


It has been a great summer for losers. By which I mean that we have seen great agony in several sporting events—the type of losses that seem so unbearable they almost become ennobling.

For a start, how about the United States soccer team against Brazil in the finals of the Federation Cup in South Africa? After a very lackluster showing in the round-robin phase of the tourney, the American team squeaked into the play-offs, then suddenly came to life to defeat Spain (then number 1 in the world) 2-0, and battled to a 2-0 half-time lead in the finals against perennial powerhouse Brazil. It was sheer agony watching that lead slip away in the course of the second half. The silver lining, if there is one, is this: the United States came away with the sense that they could compete with the best—yet they remain hungry for that elusive stakes-are-down victory at the highest level.

And how about Tom Watson at the British Open? At the age of 59, he played superb golf through 71 holes, and had he sunk that 10-foot putt on 18, he would have been the oldest golfer ever to win a major—by eleven years. But he didn’t. The tournament ended in a tie, and in a four-hole playoff, after holding off the entire field for seventy-two holes, he fell behind to a single opponent (Who was it now? I don’t remember.) by four strokes! Ouch.

The most wrenching defeat of the summer was surely that of Andy Roddick in the finals of Wimbledon. Roddick has been around now for quite a while, but he still seems like that spunky All-American kid who won the U.S. Open a few years and never quite held it all together again for the length of an entire major tournament. Perhaps feeling that his “moment” was finally passing, Roddick lost fifteen pounds and at Wimbledon he held his own against Roger Federer for four long sets. He took the fifth to an almost unbelievable twenty-nine games before succumbing 16-14. No one who has played that well for that long should end up losing.

Lance Armstrong, seven-time winner of the Tour de France, came out of retirement at the age of 37 to revitalize interest in the sport on this side of the Atlantic, but he joined the team that already had the world’s best cyclist, Alberto Contador. During the race, which requires teammates to support one another following a complex and all-but-incomprehensible code of cycling strategy and ethics, Armstrong spoke of “tension” on the team. Contrador said there was no tension.

Contrador won the race, as was widely expected, though Armstrong finished third—no mean feat for a 37-year-old. After the race Armstrong announced that he was forming his own team, and Contrador felt more comfortable revealing that he had “no admiration” for his former teammate.“My relationship with Lance Armstrong is zero,” Contador said. “On a personal level I have never admired him and never will.”

Armstrong responded: “If I were him I’d drop this drivel and start thanking his team. Without them, he doesn’t win. A champion is also measured on how much he respects his teammates and opponents.”

I think Armstrong deserves a certain degree of credit for entering into a grueling competition that he’s already dominated for so long, fully aware that he probably won’t win again. (I guess some folks just like to ride their bicycles.)

The final great loser of the summer was Tiger Woods, who held the lead of the PGA Tournament for three days before losing to a largely unknown Korean golfer named V.E. Yang. Throughout the final afternoon Yang hit the kind of shots that Woods is famous for hitting, dumfounding Woods and also the announcers. Yang looked like he was having fun. Woods didn’t. After Yang sank his putt on the eighteenth, sealing the victory, the cameras drew in on Woods, hiding his face with the visor of his baseball cap and suffering the agonies of a champion who believes to the very end that he can win against all odds—but now knows that he has not.

Losing hurts. Believe me. It’s mortifying. You say to yourself, “Wait til next time,” while wondering if there will be a next time. Wondering, perhaps, why it’s so important to rise above all the others. But there’s something exhilarating about being in the fray, doing your best, making the shots, responding to the challenge.

When I was five I won a raffle, and my prize was a little beanie with a monkey sitting on top of it. If you squeezed a little rubber ball, air would rush through a tube attached to the monkey sitting on the top of your head, and he would beat a little drum.

Since then, it’s all been downhill.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

BWCA-A Stranger in Our Midst

Because our point of entry was Missing Link Lake (which has two portages totaling a mile and a half of muddy labor, right off the bat) and because the opportunity presented itself, we borrowed a friend’s Kevlar canoe on our recent visit to the BWCA Wilderness. The canoe weighs 25 pounds less than the aluminum Grumman I’ve been hoisting for thirty years, and that’s nice. I could envision a time when we’d want to get one ourselves, and thought it would be a good idea to try one out.

The portaging is easier with a Kevlar canoe, that’s for sure. But I found out in the course of our four-day trip that this canoe (made by the Winona company) also has its drawbacks. As everyone knows, you can’t bang a Kevlar canoe on the rocks every time you arrive at a portage. Well, that’s no big deal, though during the course of the trip I was made aware of something I’d never noticed before. The landings at portages are sometimes nothing more than a row of boulders on the edge of fairly deep water. With a Grumman, you merely drag the canoe up over the rocks before hoisting it. With a Kevlar, that would be a serious no-no.

The seats of our borrowed canoe were a more serious problem. Unlike the roomy aluminum bench of a Grumman, the seats on this canoe were butt-shaped like the seat on an old-fashioned tractor. That may sound nice, but what it means is that you’re stuck in a single position. And the fact that the seat is much closer to the bottom of the canoe means that you have no room to tuck your legs under it, and are forced to assume a sort of kayak slouch with legs extended, which is far less comfortable than the proud, erect, Voyageur-esque posture and its many variants that the roomier Grumman accommodates.

Another drawback to the butt-shaped seats is that you can’t sit in them backwards, which makes it very difficult to paddle a Kevlar canoe by yourself. (With a Grumman, if you sit in the bow seat backwards, your body weight is quite close to the center of the canoe, which makes it easy to paddle out alone to fetch a bucket of water, for example.)

I noticed how tippy the Kevlar canoe was on our first night out, when I had a little trouble during a solo mission to fetch the water, though the lake was perfectly calm. At our second campsite, I invited Hilary to accompany me out on that essential chore, but before she could climb into the bow seat, I’d fallen out of the stern!

It happens fast. And suddenly you’re scrambling to keep the canoe itself from coming over with you, then struggling to regain your balance on the slimy rocks without immersing yourself entirely.

The water was extremely cold—that is to say, refreshing. And I only fell in up to my armpits. As I was looking for a cord to hang up my wet clothes, I discovered that our utility bag was missing. That little rubber zippered bag, which once belonged to Hilary’s great uncle, contained not only our scraps of rope, but also all of our eating utensils, matches, and flashlights.

But that’s another story.

If you'd care to see more photos of the trip, click here.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

What Friendship is About

A recent article in the Boston Globe reports on a “growing” body of evident that we know less about our friends and even spouses than we think we do. According the Globe reporter Drake Bennett, the most common mistake we make is to “assume our friends agree with us on particular issues when they actually don’t.”

The data upon which this report is based may well be solid, but it merely reiterates a truth that is already well-known, and has served as an underpinning of game shows for decades. Meanwhile, I’m afraid the researchers missed two other findings of far greater interest. A more comprehensive study would undoubtedly have shown that we know less, not only about our friends, but about everything, than we think we do. We are all masters of reiterating theories and discoveries (like the one in the Globe) that we half-remember from newspaper reports and radio interviews. Pressed for details or elaboration, we’re likely to stammer a bit and then say, “Why not tune in to the podcast and hear the whole thing?”

But this isn’t really news either. Didn’t Socrates, the Athenian gadfly, engage in dialogues twenty-five hundred years ago expressly designed to demonstrate that no one really knew what they were talking about?

A more interesting notion brought to light by the study, and one that’s worthy of serious reflection, is that friendship is not really based on agreement or “solidarity.” We love our friends, not because of how they vote or where the food they eat was grown, but because of who they are. We love and admire them less for their specific views and habits than for their quirks of personality, their enthusiasms, their root values and their “heart.” Our friends in time become indelible features of our emotional landscape, which help us sustain the notion that the world is a sane and sacred place, though one of the things we may come to love about them best is the food for discussion and dispute they provide as we gather around the cafe or conference table.

By the same token, our depth of mutual affection makes it important that we proceed cautiously when delicate or controversial issues arise, lest we offend one another’s sensibilities. This is less a matter of evasion than of courtesy and tact.

The thrust of the article in the Globe seems to be that we know less about our friends than we think we do—therefore, we ought to be wary, if not genuinely afraid. This is a dumb and dreadful attitude to espouse, which reflects an utter lack of familiarity with what friendship feels like. It isn’t a matter of hanging around with people who signed the same petitions we did.

In his pithy study, Civilization and Violence, Amartya Sen remarks that “a solidarist approach can be a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world.”

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

August Silver

The second half of the year is almost invariably better than the first half—stronger, fuller, more complete. September is a very fine month—summer without the heat and glare—and every part of autumn is a new crescendo of subtle perfection. On the other hand, many parts of spring merely ache in anticipation of other, better things to come.

Nevertheless, we greet the arrival of August with more than a tinge of melancholy. This is summer at its best—but also summer on the point of vanishing. The state fair, the trip up north, the end-of-summer boule party, Labor Day… The thought grips us that we haven’t enjoyed summer enough—haven’t given it our all.

I have spent the summer listening to the sounds of the neighbor kids, Hayden, Max, and Cooper, playing in their driveway about ten feet from my “office” window. To this pleasant cacophony we must add the less agreeable sounds of the chain-saw artist who spent the month of July turning the ten-foot stump of a cottonwood tree across the street into a silver, blue-eyed dragon.

He removed the scaffolding only yesterday—and as luck would have it, today the tree trimmers for the power company arrived in force with their chain saws to clear all the branches away from the power lines in the backyard. They’ll be back tomorrow to haul away the branches and grind them up. Oh boy.

But when the foreman took his leave he informed me that we have an opossum nesting in our silver maple tree. He showed me a photo he took with his cell phone. Long pink snout, tiny teeth. I guess we could call this a silver lining?