Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ice Dams

Following a week of virtually non-stop food and festivity, I spent a good part of the day yesterday on a ladder chipping ice off the eaves to stop the flow of water into the house. There's something meditative about following the cleavages in the ice with a hammer and screwdriver, watching the chunks fly off through your yellow-tinted goggles, seeing how close you can get to the shingles without punching a hole in them. The little tap-tap-tap rings out through the neighborhood, while the incessant drip-drip-drip continues inside.

The ice itself has the look of white obsidian, wavy, smooth, and sheer. The task is seemingly endless, but it’s a thrill when you do hit an area where a puddle has collected; the ice is suddenly wet, it starts to come off easier, your deerskin choppers soon become soaked. Time to come in for another cup of coffee...

So much for global warming? Not really. It’s well documented that the earth’s frozen areas are in retreat, but there are exceptions. The seasonal snow cover has, in the past two decades, actually expanded across the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, especially just north of the Himalayas, the Tien Shan, and the Altai in Central Asia. This pile of snow influences the atmosphere profoundly because it creates a large dome of cold air which the jet stream must bend around. A bigger pile of cold air generates a bigger bend. In response, the jet stream diverges more often, and more wildly, from its generally west to east path and begins to meander north and south, sending more warm air north from the tropics into Alaska and Greenland, and pushing cold air south from the Arctic on the east side of the Rockies across the interior of North America. Cold Siberian air, meanwhile, spills south into East Asia and southwestward toward Europe.

More snow, more ice dams. I’ve got the bamboo roof-rake out. There’s something poetic about scraping snow with bamboo, I guess. Yet the effort is half-hearted. It’s supposed to rain in a day or two…

Monday, December 20, 2010

Solstice Reflections

I came upon the following passage in a little book called The Meaning of It All, by the physicist Richard Feynman:

It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe, beyond man, to contemplate what it would be like without man, as it was in a great part of its long history and as it is in a great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are fully appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to view life as part of this universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is very rare, and very exciting. It usually ends in laughter and a delight in the futility of trying to understand what this atom in the universe is, this thing-atoms with curiosity-that looks at itself and wonders why it wonders.

This is a simple and beautiful description, I think, of an experience many of us have had at one time or another. Feynman goes on to suggest that the mystery and awe he’s describing is so deep and impressive that conventional religious explanations—for example, that our presence here on earth has been arranged by God for his own glory, or so that he can watch the struggle between good and evil—are simply inadequate.

I would agree. Perhaps we could go further, and argue that such explanations are not merely inadequate, but misleading. The experience Feynman is describing is immediate, intuitive, and profound. Conventional religious explanations commonly posit an overload whom we seldom, if ever, meet, and have difficulty limning the contours of. This shadowy figure, quite unlike the intuition being described, tends to drag us down into a muddle in which exuberance and wonder compete with a sense of personal inadequacy and conscience. The laughter and delight diminish.

All the same, it seems to me that such notions of deity serve a purpose, and contain an element of truth. They reflect a reality that Feynman’s intuition doesn’t go quite far enough to include. For when we posit the inanimate universe from an “objective” point of view, following his advice, and then reverse our attention back to ourselves, we don’t see “man.” We see ourselves. More specifically, I see me. Unique, sentient, curious, mysterious, precious … and fraught with contingency.

This is the source of the frisson Feynman is describing. It’s important to remove the abstraction “man” from the equation, and it also might be just as well to remove the references to matter and atoms. Everything is made out of atoms, I guess. So what? The question is, How is it made? What is its structure? What makes it interesting, excellent, unique? Calling a sentient being “atoms” is like calling a soufflé “flour and eggs.”

A second element needs to be added to the experience, I think. For when we turn from the remarkable universe “out there” and refocus our attention on the no less remarkable “whatever-it is” in here, we find ourselves face to face not only with personal awareness, but also with our own drives and interests. After all, I don’t merely see and feel, I also scheme and plan. I have feelings, desires, and projects, all of which cavort in an unruly pen we sometimes refer to as the “ego.”

The negative connotations that haunt the word “ego” are nearly the opposite, perhaps, of those that can bring an element of unpleasantness to the word “God.” If we tend to see God as unduly portentous and dour, we too often see the ego as unduly crass and shallow. These effects, both of which are superficial, are also complimentary and to some extend intertwined. They work together to form the very common, yet wrongheaded, notion, that to enjoy oneself is evil, to give selflessly with obsequious deference to the Almighty is right and proper.

It seems to me there is a healthier and more fruitful way to set these elements against one another. A more complete inventory of the emotions associated with the “existential awareness” Feynman describes, might include not only wonder and delight, but also a vague sense of obligation to exert ourselves on behalf of the greater world in the midst of which we find ourselves. The two feelings don’t conflict. Rather, they support and fuel one another.

In another words, conscience is a natural result of self-awareness, and it becomes stronger yet when we begin to contemplate the beings who surround us on all sides, each of whom have different, but similarly unique, “windows” on the universe.

But conscience isn’t everything. The universe is fueled by exuberance and delight, self-aggrandizement and over-weaning pride, no less than by fellow-feeling. In any case, conscience itself is often governed to a large degree by personal affections and preferences, rather than by an indiscriminate urge to love our neighbors. For that matter, much of what we love about our family and friends has less to do with their selfless generosity than with their liveliness and complexity as people.

Such concepts are difficult to articulate, and I suppose I’ve made a hash of it here. The rituals and revelations of the world’s religions expose a variety of public responses, enshrined by tradition, exalted by art, and defiled by superstition and politics, to the same situation.

Less widely recognized, by of equal importance, I think, is the long tradition of rational inquiry into these same matters, of which Feyman’s refreshingly brief peroration is a classic example. The other day I hit upon another such effort when I took a look at Plato’s early dialogue Euthyphro. Though the dialogue ends inconclusively, as is typical of Plato’s early work, along the way Socrates asks two questions that are germane to the issues we’re discussing here. The first is designed to highlight the distinction between what can be measured and what can’t be measured. We’ll leave that critical distinction for another time. The second asks the question whether the gods love something because it’s good, or whether something is good because the gods love it.

Translated into religious terms, we might ask whether we’re being good when we do the things God tells us to, or whether the injunctions we’ve been given by religious authorities are designed to help us clarify and aid the natural bent of the human spirit toward what is right, good, and proper. Reduced to essentials, it’s a distinction between obedience and conscience.

But no sooner does the word “bent” appear than I’m reminded of Kant’s remark, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” That’s a grim statement, and also an exaggeration, but it points to one aspect of the issue that I’ve been neglecting. Some people don’t seem to have much of a conscience. And even the best among us are often wracked by guilt when reflecting on things they might have done better, or perhaps should have done but never did at all. Besides, our actions are usually guided not only by what our conscience tells us is right, but by what other people expect, and the injunctions of religious doctrine, almost by definition, falls into the latter category.

When we examine the night sky, on the shortest day of the year, this is not, in all probability, the direction our thoughts will take. Something far simpler is likely to surface—white snow, jingling bells, wonder and delight, and a vague sense of gratitude, perhaps, that we’re actually standing here in the dark with a trillion miles of empty space in front of us, pretty much alive and well.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

City Mouse and Country Mouse

The census figures are starting to roll in, and before long we’ll be awash in “analysis” the purpose of which is less to enlighten us than to “warn” us about how our society is crumbling in or way or another. The article in MinnPost today by Sharon Smickle is a classic case in point.

Analyzing the data, she finds a growing divide between urban and rural communities. The subhead reads: “The same lines that divide America are visible throughout the state. In pockets of rural Minnesota, people are far poorer, older and less educated than those who live in select Twin Cities suburbs and Rochester neighborhoods.”

But looking at the accompanying map, I don’t see any divide. The poor areas (dark green) shade into the moderately well-off areas in every direction. These chartreuse areas, in turn, shade into light green areas where people are quite well off. As we approach the very urban core, things grow somewhat darker again. Anyone asked to draw a line marking the “divide” Sharon is referring to would find it impossible to do so.

If we reduce the figures to their starkest and simplest state—like sliding the contrast bar in Photoshop all the way to the right—we’ll see a radical difference between urban and rural, black and white. But that effect is as patently artificial as a manipulated photograph. All it really tells us is that urban and rural demographics are different, as are urban and rural life. Is that news? I think I first read about such things in Aesops Fables, which appeared about 2,500 years ago.

The upshot of Sharon’s article is that urban folk, on average, are slightly younger, better educated, and make more money than small-town folk. (Most allegedly “rural” people live in small towns, and only 6% earn a living related to agriculture. An even smaller percentage actually “work” the land.) This is presumably because many small-town folk go to the city to get an education and never come back. Can we blame them for this? Then again, older people sometimes move to a cabin out-state when they retire, or back to their old home town, where the pace of life is gentler and health care costs may be more manageable, thus bringing the average age up and the average income down in that region.

Is there a crisis here? Is there a radical divide?

Meanwhile, what census statistics can’t track is the shadow economy that a growing number of young people seeking a simpler lifestyle move to small towns to enjoy.

The one interesting item Sharon mentions is that “rural” folk own more vehicles than urban folk. Always looking on the dark side of things, she attributes this to the lack of public transportation options out-state. But I’m not so sure we need to feel sorry for our country cousins, who have put up the “closed” sign on the body shop window and are out roaming the hills on their ATVs and snow machines, while we’re cooped up in suburban office towers planning desperately how to avoid the rush hour traffic.

In La Fontaine’s version of “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse,” the two rodents enjoy a fine dinner until the cat arrives to send them scurrying. The country mouse refuses a repeat invitation, remarking:

…It’s not that I’m critical of
the food. You served the best.

But at home I eat in peace,
And nobody interrupts.
Goodbye, then, and to hell
With pleasure that fear corrupts!

Monday, December 13, 2010


The wind was wicked, but the snow remained light, like specks of sand and dust rather than genuine flakes. The thing was, it just kept on coming.

We’d purchased a tree the previous evening down at the farmer’s market, and spent the morning on various household tasks. I revved up the snow-blower when a foot or so had accumulated. I knew I’d be out there again, but the machine is so small that after a certain point it simply can’t cope.

Then it was time for a rare jaunt down our street and up the hill on skis. We passed a neighbor hurrying back to her house after walking the dog, but otherwise we had the neighborhood to ourselves. Except for the shovelers. Not a bird in sight. One car had made its way through the drifts and out to a more well-traveled thoroughfare. (The first plow didn’t arrive on our street until after midnight.)

It’s pleasant, this snowed-in feeling. A reheated lunch of delicata squash soup with pasta. Music fills the air. Everything from the Tallis Scholars and English Organ Music of the Renaissance, to Il Viaggio di Lucrezia, a lovely, meditative collection of antique Italian harp music by Mara Galassi.

At some point in the night the Metrodome collapsed. This is news, especially when a team from New York is scheduled to play there. But this morning all was clear and bright, the plow has been by, leaving a dense ridge of snow in front of the driveway.

At 17 inches, this storm ranks fifth or sixth among those that have been recorded in these parts. But to judge from the numbers below, the period between January 20 and 23, 1982, received 37 inches, though there was a lull in the middle of onslaught.

I remember those days. We skiied to the SuperAmerica on 40th and Lyndale. Propped the skis outside next to the propane tanks. On the way down the alley, we met a neighbor who was stuck big-time.

“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “Triple A is on the way."

“Oh, we’ll push you out,” I replied in neighborly fashion. Getting behind the car to give it a shove, I proceeded to punch a hole in the man’s tail light. Oops!!
1. Oct. 31-Nov. 3, 1991 28.4 inches
2. Nov. 29-Dec. 1, 1985 21.1
3. Jan. 22-23, 1982 20.0
4. Jan. 20-21, 1982 17.4
5. December 12, 2010 17
6. Nov. 11-12, 1940 16.8
7. March 3-4, 1985 16.7

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dragon Tattoos and Angel Wings

I was probably the last person in the upper Midwest to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’m glad I did, if only because I no longer will have to wonder what all the fuss was about. But the experience didn’t make me eager to see the other two.

The film takes us to some dark and revolting places. But the violence and sexual abuse amount to only ten minutes of film time (albeit a long ten minutes)and for the rest, it’s just a well-made Swedish thriller in which outcasts and journalists confront the Good Old Boys of capitalist corruption, greed, murder, exploitation, and so on. The “girl” in the title, pierced and tattooed, has been so bent out of shape by bad experiences at the hands of men that she seethes with unexpressed anger—yet most viewers will find her intriguing, and more than that, attractive. The male lead, a journalist played by Michael Nyqvist, is simultaneously committed, resigned, wary, naïve, amorous, and reserved. All in all, he seems to be a pretty nice guy.

While watching the film, I was reminded from time to time of another film Nyqvist made recently called As It Is in Heaven. In this one he plays a world-famous conductor who returns to the remote village in northern Sweden where he grew up to recover following a nervous breakdown. Soon he becomes involved with the local church choir—though he mostly just wants to be alone—and as he gets to know the villagers, a variety of sub-plots develop involving the parish priest (who’s envious of his popularity and doubtful about his religious convictions) a few lovely choir-members, and a boorish enemy from his childhood days.

Some parts of the film are corny and some parts are badly staged, but there is also quite a bit of life to the be found there. In particular, the avant garde choir rehearsals are choice. At various places I was reminded of Waiting for Guffman and Shultz Gets the Blues while watching it. It’s one of those works the shortcomings of which obvious…though its humanity is not to be missed.

About The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I’m not so sure.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Absurd and the Impossible

"[Absurdity] is in fact an accurate and a productive way of understanding the world. Why should we be interested in a clearly impossible story? Because, as Gogol says, in fact the impossible is what happens all the time.”
- William Kentridge

An old friend (now caring for her aged mother in Nevada, if I’m not mistaken) sent me this quote not long ago via Facebook. Well, I couldn’t tell you if she sent it to me personally. Maria has 606 friends, and perhaps she sometimes forgets who all is out there. But I’ll bet she wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the remark piqued my interest.

I’ve been thinking about the absurd on and off for quite some time now. Ever since my college years, in fact, when The Trial, Troubled Sleep, Nausea, Notes from Underground, and other works in the same vein were my daily reading habit. I got a charge out of reading such dismal stuff, though I was a mostly a happy-go-lucky sort myself. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps it was the combination of metaphysical speculation and novelistic detail as related by an assortment of hapless misanthropes living on the frenzied edge of nothingness—the typical adolescent syndrome of those who are still afraid of girls. It struck me at the time as funny, important, and largely true-to-life.

But there came a time—I think it was in 1972, I was wandering in the dark amid the grain elevators north of University Avenue and west of the KSTP tower, with the smell of malt in my nostrils—when it suddenly occurred to me that the universe could not be absurd. Why not? Because the word “absurd” can only have meaning in contrast to something that makes sense. If nothing makes sense, then neither “absurdity” nor “sense” hold their meaning.

The word “absurd” does have meaning. But its point of reference is invariably narrow. Let me give you an example. Suppose I were to say: “Georgeanne went to absurd lengths to make sure that the flowers on the table were fresh.” What this means is, “Georgeanne cares a lot more about fresh flowers than you or I do.” Or how about this one: “To argue, in this day and age, that the earth is merely 4,000 years old is absurd.” What this means is, anyone who can disregard the mountains of geological and astrophysical evidence available regarding the extraordinary age of the universe has really lost his or her senses—or is clinging to some quaint and out moded belief for emotional reasons.

In each case, an attitude appears absurd in contrast to another, more well-developed one. We describe an attitude as absurd when we’ve grown tired of trying to explain how mistaken it is on empirical grounds.

Yet between these two examples, the first is far less absurd than the second. Just because we aren’t that interested in flowers doesn’t mean that it’s absurd to pay close special attention to them. In fact, in this instance it may be our focus that’s narrow, not Georgeanne’s. She sees the more brilliant, colorful world that erupts before us when we take care to introduce really fresh flowers to the scene. While we’re burdened with false equivalencies (plastic flowers) and cost-benefit analysis, she opens our vision to an entirely new world—and really, how much is that worth?

The quote I received from Maria may be taken to refer to the fact that we don’t really know what’s possible and what’s not, and it can be a mistake to set false limits to the things we might see or do, the things that might happen.

The positive side of this “truth” has been dramatized time and again in films like Hoosiers and The October Sky, anot the mention horror films and holocaust films beyond number underscoring what dangers lurk beneath even the most benign situations. And weren’t we all, during our childhood years, traumatized in one way or another by that capitalist tract The Little Engine That Could and The Cat in the Hat?

The line separating what can and cannot happen gets especially murky in the outer reaches of time and space—beyond telescopes and on the other side of the Styx. Hence, religious thought is often sparked by tales and adages riddled with absurdity. The Zen koan may be taken as a case in point. And didn’t Tertillian once remark,

"The Son of God was born: there is no shame, because it is shameful.
And the Son of God died: it is wholly credible, because it is unsound.
And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible."

This last line, which originally read “et sepultus resurrexit, certum est, quia impossibile” entered the lexicon of Western maxims in a bowdlerized form, Credo quia absurdum, “I believe, because it is absurd”—a remark that will throw a wet blanket on any discussion of religion, though it might help to explain the behavior of suicide bombers.

Poets and novelists have no qualms about combining images and events in ways that don’t really make sense, and such concoctions can sometimes be illuminating or refreshing: A Hundred Years of Solitude, and Calvino’s Invisible Cities come immediately to mind. It seems to me that impossibilities along these lines never take us as deep as do the absurdities in a book like Don Quixote, which springs from the mind of the protagonist rather than that of the author. But we’ll leave that argument for another time.

Nowadays poetry is all but required to indulge in a little nonsense. Did it all start with Rimbaud?

Yet none of this strikes to the heart of Kentridge’s (or Gogol’s) remark, I think, which issues from a point of exasperation, if not despair. There are times when the world seems to be so far out of whack with our values and expectations that all we can do is throw up our hands with the cry, “How absurd!”

Flaubert remains the high priest of this attitude, though it seems to me his views are usually misinterpreted. We find it easy to sympathize with the disgust he feels in the face of bourgeois culture, but have developed a tin ear with regard to the deep affection underlying it. I picked up my copy of Bouvard and Pechuchet just now and was reconfirmed in that judgment. It’s a very funny book, I really ought to read it again.

In the end, “the impossible” doesn’t happen all the time. On the contrary, by definition, it never happens. And it may be worth pointing out that when words such as “crazy” and “absurd” and “impossible” enter a discuss, it means that thought is at an end. In the political sphere that’s not a good terminal to arrive at. It certainly isn’t a "productive" way of looking at the world, no matter what William Kentridge (or Gogol) says.

Yet don’t we sometimes use those words ourselves?

Sarah Palin as president? Crazy. Absurd. Impossible.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

North of Grand Rapids

Gray, leafless November. It’s a time of year to stay home in front of the fire and leave the woods and lakes to the hunters. But it’s also a beautiful time to be out (ask a hunter), when the snow arrives as flecks of soft white dust and the ice is just forming on the lakes. The bogs take on new prominence, now that the leaves are gone from the trees and bushes and the branches show red or orange at the tips. The snow brings light to the scene, one element among many, but it has not yet obliterated all the subtlety in the details.

We spent the weekend in a lakeside cabin at a resort on Woman Lake, at the north end of that fifty-mile welter known collectively as the Brainerd Lakes. It’s hilly around Woman Lake, and perhaps a little wilder than down in the flatter land among the mansions on Crosslake and Gull and Whitefish. In fact, driving east from Woman Lake through Longville toward Remer, you pass nothing but bogs and woods for a good twenty miles. At one point Hilary spotted a large bird flying up from the ditch as we passed. We did a u-turn. It was a great gray owl. (People come from all over the United States to see them.)

Our route took us north from Remer to Deer River and on to Big Fork, where logging isn’t just a matter of rustic deck furniture and Paul Bunyan statues. We bought some wild rice sausage at the local supermarket but couldn’t bring ourselves to check out the Loggers Food and Drink south of town.

Seven miles east of town we paid a visit to Scenic State Park, which has several pristine lakes lined with old growth white pines (preserved due to the efforts of some prescient local residents back in the 1920s) and some of the finest log CCC buildings in the north country. The ice was just beginning to form on the lakes, there was a hint of blue coming through the clouds, and the dusting of snow on the ice sheet, with dark water beyond and dark pines in the background, made for an arresting scene.

We would have hiked out along the esker between the lakes but the ranger advised us that if we did, we might get shot. Our bright orange stocking hats JUST might not be enough of an indication that we were NOT six-foot two-legged deer.

On a gravel backroad north of Marcel we came upon some logging operations that bore the marks of having just been completed. Huge, beautiful trees lying on their sides in a pile, all in a row. Slag carefully scraped into piles near the road, and some of the pines left standing, whether because it kept the forest looking respectable, or because it was required by law, or because they’d be worth more later, I don’t know.

I love seeing cut forests. Why? Because I love things that are made out of wood. And wood comes from trees. But it’s especially nice to see an intelligent, tasteful cut, out in the middle of nowhere. But what do I know about cutting trees?

I love piles of logs sitting by the side of the road. And I love lumber yards, though I have not developed any skill at making things from wood myself, and I’m sure I never will. In fact, I’ve never tried. I also love paper. And I have made more than a few books.

Our drive south on Highway 38 toward Grand Rapids took us through some of the hilliest country Minnesota has to offer, past the Suomi Hills and other intriguing areas of low-impact recreational development. There were swans drifting on several of the austere gray lakes.

Back at our cozy cabin, we cooked up a butternut squash stew with corn and jalapeños, and then settled into the evening reading. The sky outside the window was a deadly gray. The lake was grayer still. The wind was from the southeast, which at this time of the year usually means snow.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kenny Barron at the Dakota

Kenny Barron blew into the Dakota last night, trailing an all-star band—as they call it. Kenny himself has long since graduated from “world’s best jazz sideman” to “world’s best lyric jazz pianist” though such monikers are tossed around mostly by club owners trying to fill the house. (He barely made the top ten in the latest Downbeat Critics Poll.) Kenny’s style is distinctly linear, as opposed to the bold, impenetrable chordal thickets so often thrown our way nowadays by the likes of Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, and Chucho Valdés. In his frenzied moments, the mix of furious arpeggios and rapid-fire riffs can sound like one holy muddle, but the pianistic “touch” and sheer musical thought Kenny exhibits in quieter moments more than redresses the balance.

In the end, you go to a Kenny Barron show to hear the kind of jazz you’ve been hearing all your life—straight-ahead bebop with a few modernist furies and a touch of “stride” here and there. That’s why I go, anyway.

Kenny’s current quartet features David Sanchez, a firebrand tenor in his mid-forties who was once Barron’s student at Rutgers, and two musicians I’d never heard of, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Kim Thompson. Kenny met Kim in Cuba in 2001 at the Havana Jazz Festival. "I had never heard Kim play,” he later recalled, “but when I asked Ben Riley for a recommendation, the first person he suggested was Kim. We didn't have time to rehearse, but her performance blew me away." Since that time the two have performed together often, though to some readers Kim’s most impressive credit would be that she’s pop-diva Beyonce’s drummer.

Thompson’s energy and taste were in evidence throughout the evening, though on the opening number, a rousing rendition of “Softly as a Morning Sunrise,” she all but overpowered the rest of the band. From that point on, the group settled down, moving through a pleasant but somewhat rusty samba, a tender piece Barron had written for a film score called “Theme #1,” and “Body and Soul,” which seems to bring out the best in any soloist.

David Sanchez played a robust, straight-ahead tenor throughout the evening, building his solos carefully, hanging close to the changes and not really cutting lose until the groundwork had been laid. Exactly the kind of music I go to the Dakota to hear. Near the end of the final piece of the set, “Bud Like,” another Barron original dedicated to Bud Powell (one of his idols), Sanchez put together a remarkable cadenza, and to judge from the attentiveness of Barron and his other cohorts in the band, it wasn’t something he played every night.

The entire set was engaging, and the elderly couple hacking away at their steaks down the way, directly in our line of sight, were only mildly distracting.

I sometimes get the feeling that live jazz is sustained by people who don’t really like jazz much, but if that’s what it takes, so be it. The food at the Dakota looks and smells so good that it becomes part of the show, whether you order it yourself or not.

Barron came out for a brief encore, a solo rendition of Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You.” And Sanchez, dripping with sweat and wearing a boyish grin, held the door for us as we left the club. (Perhaps he’d stepped outside for a smoke.)

“Great set,” was all I could think of to say. But it was true.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Vision:Hildegard von Bingen

Thick snow covers the branches and telephone wires, once again the electricity is off, no heat or light except what can be got from candles and a fire in the fireplace. On the stereo, some ethereal hymns composed eight-hundred-odd years ago by Hildegard von Bingen. It suits the occasion.

Hildegard began seeing visions and hearing voices at the age of three. Much later she wrote down these experiences, encouraged by clerics in high places. She is often referred to as Western Europe’s first mystic. As an adult she founded an abbey, wrote music and some of the first Mystery plays, executed visionary, almost psychedelic paintings, traveled widely, corresponded with the high and mighty, and attracted many pilgrims to her doorstep.

And now German director Margarethe von Trotta, a former cohort of Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog best known for The Lost Honor of Katerina Blum (1975) has made a film about her.

It’s a good, if conventional, film, which charts the course of Hildegard’s career in episodic fashion, focusing mainly on her relations with the sisters and monks at the monastery where she was raised. Von Trotte makes little effort to reproduce Hildegard’s inner experience, recreating only one brief vision and neglecting to show us even one of the abbess’s paintings. Nor does she delve deeply into the woman’s philosophy of “greening” or “life-power” which has become popular among environmentalists of a New Age stamp.

But von Trotta has recreated the atmosphere of the times quite well, with the help of Hildegard’s own music, and actress Barbara Sukowa, in the title role, has the piercing gaze and utter sincerity of purpose to command our attention. Hildegard’s love of books—very scarce at the time—and her interest in nature, come through loud and clear, as does the challenge of dealing with her visions in a world where cries of “Heresy!” come easily to the lips of those in power—who are almost always men. Her conflicts with the church hierarchy supply most of the film’s drama, and the undercurrents of shifting affection among the nuns themselves give it some counterpoint.

While watching the film I was reminded from time to time of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, but more often of those little-seen films Roberto Rossellini made at the end of his career such as Pascal, Socrates, and The Age of the Medici. I find it remarkable that in this day and age, a documentary film shot along such lines can still get a few weeks of screen time at a major film venue!

Also remarkable is Hildegard’s music, which you can hear in all its glory on “A Feather on the Breath of God: Sequences and Hymns by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen” featuring the incomparable soprano Emma Kirkby with the Gothic Voices (Hyperion CDA66039).

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Social Network

I have a soft spot for films set on college campuses, my favorites (off the top of my head) being Wonder Boys, Good Will Hunting, The Paper Chase, and Legally Blond. Young women and men are in the midst of what, for many, is the first flush of quasi-independence; they’re being challenged to show their stuff intellectually in the classroom while engaging in animated conversations at local watering holes after hours and attending wild parties where all the females look almost like movie stars. My years at the U of M weren’t quite like that….but our five-man intramural touch football term, the Dirty Hittites, did reach the class-D finals in my freshman year!

The Social Network, set largely on the campus of Harvard University, is similarly well-endowed with late-night drinking, over-bright students, odd-ball personalities, and winsome coeds. It tells the story of Mark Zuckerman, the inventor of Facebook, and the plot-line would fall squarely into the category of implausible wish-fulfillment fantasies if it didn’t happen to be largely true. It would appear the Zuckerman came up with a proto-version of the website in a single evening after being jilted by his girlfriend, by hacking into the photo pages of every sorority on campus. The rest was just a matter of nuance, details—and funding.

The plot-point around which the film turns is a legal battle between Zuckerman and several former partners or associates who were dropped from the development team at various points along the way (or were never a part of it, according to Zuckerman) and are suing him to cash in on the webpage’s success. We’re brought up to date in a series of flashbacks as the lawyers question Zuckerman and the plaintive about who did what, when. At the heart of the film, if not the legal dispute, is a difference of opinion between Zuckerman and college roommate Eduaro Saverin, who financed the project and is considered Facebooks co-founder, about whether or not the site ought to carry advertisements. Eduaro is Zuckerman’s only friend and their clashes become increasingly painful to watch, especially after cool-Californian Sean Parker, the founder of the file-sharing site Napster, arrives on the scene.

Though Zuckerman comes across as somewhat snarky, and treats his intellectual inferiors with bored distain, he’s seldom really malicious, and the path by which, picking up on incidental conversations and events, he hones the features of his social networking website, is fascinating to watch. We rarely actually see a page of Facebook during the film, and that’s probably just as well. The film is well-paced and unflaggingly engaging, while Facebook itself is a simple thing, not well-suited for the big screen. Lots of people get a kick out of it. In fact, I have a page myself. Being self-employed, I find that it offers a refreshing break from the solitary grind of making books—like gathering with friends for chit-chat around the proverbial water-cooler. But I find it hard to see, even with ads, how it could ever live up to its current valuation of $33 billion dollars.

And now, writing a blog about a movie about Facebook, I find myself in an almost Borgesian situation. (Borgesian? What’s that?)

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Wrong Blood

Manuel de Lope, whose work is well-known in his native Spain, makes his English-language debut with a translation of The Wrong Blood, a novel as quiet and ineluctable as the estuarial waters on the Bay of Biscay that serve as the setting for much of the action. That de Lope is less interesting in suspense than atmosphere is made evident even in the title, which tips us off before we’ve even opened the book to the likelihood that issues of paternity or inheritance lie in store. Though the story is told in the third person, de Lope often proposes several motives for a given action, thus shattering the immediacy of his narrative and giving the story the character of a personal reminiscence rather than an omniscient recount.

There are plenty of astute observations and descriptive details to hold our interest throughout the tale, but in the early chapters the narrator’s bemused detachment tends to leave the characters a little flat, like lifeless tin soldiers being set in place for the purpose of recreating the phases of an important battle. This is the case especially with Maria Antonia Etxarri, a sixteen-year-old living with her mother and step-father at an inn as the story commences. De Lope’s description of the onset of the Civil War carries the bewildering flavor that such events undoubtedly have to those caught in the midst of them, but when Maria’s parents flee the inn, we’re given no explanation as the why she's left behind. When rebels occupy the premises, Maria is convinced she’ll be raped before they leave, though she seems strangely unperturbed by the fact. As a character she remains opaque.

The book develops greater resonance when it jumps to the present day and we’re introduced to an elderly physician with a bum leg who is fascinated to discover that the grandson of the woman who used to own the neighboring estate has arrived to spend a few months studying for exams. By a strange quirk of fate, that estate now belongs to Maria Antonia, who had worked there as a servant after the war and inherited it when her employer, the grandmother of her current visitor, died. The doctor is eager to impart some tidbits of information to the new arrival about the lad’s past—though the visitor is too busy with his studies to pay much attention. As this intriguingly avuncular, if one-sided, relationship develops, the narrator gradually fills us in about the doctor’s relations with his neighbors during the war and the fate of the student’s grandfather.

The course de Lope is charting in The Wrong Blood can be predicted easily enough simply by reading the table of contents, but that’s not the point. Reading the book is like looking at an album of old photographs under the tutelage of a man who, due to a freak motorcycle accident, spent most of his life on the outside looking in at the happiness, and the misery, of others. He knows who these characters are, knows their secrets. He might even have loved one of them. In any case, it’s a rich skein of impressions and conjectures about war, class, family, and the lush Basque landscape that ought to give satisfaction to any serious reader.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


It’s a funny feeling when you arrive home in the dark, flip the switch in the kitchen … and nothing happens. You flip the switch again, although you know perfectly well that’s not how a switch works. Then everything changes—inside your head.

The power is out.

You pull the flashlight from the drawer, dig some candles out of the closet, find the matches (same drawer) and begin to illuminate the place. Getting a little classier, you find some taller bee’s-wax candles, put them in candleholders. Suddenly it occurs to you that a mirror might be useful, though none are near at hand.

Your wife arrives home from yoga to find the living room bathed in candlelight. How enchanting! You’re such a dear.

The next morning, you look out the bedroom window to see that the cedar tree which has shielded the yard for thirty years is taking a siesta on the neighbor’s garage. The temperature hasn’t dropped much yet—it stands at 62 degrees—but it will.

The computer is down (Duh!). It’s impossible to get to your files, and you spend the day sitting beside the super-efficient Jøtul stove (a phrase which may not mean much to the younger generation) reading a Spanish novel—The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope. No music to listen to. Just the howl of the wind and the occasional snap of a wind-driven branch against the sliding doors that open out to the deck.

By noon you’ve moved most of the food in the fridge into coolers that are sitting just outside that door. The spanikopita and pot pies in the freezer will get eaten tonight. Frozen cranberries? Might as well toss them, don’t you think? There are now several power cords running across the street from neighbor to neighbor—they have power over on that side-although you haven’t been included in any such arrangement. Well, you never asked.

A brief visit to the library with the laptop to check for urgent emails proves fruitless. (Let's face it--you're bored. You never get urgent emails.) Along the way you notice that you feel like a cripple when you’re at home, but everything’s suddenly fine the minute you leave the house. Your neighbor stops by at dusk to find out if your power is still out. His house is down to 40 degrees, he says.

Later that night, returning home from a heated racquetball match, you ponder the logistics of taking a shower in the dark. (Important meeting tommorrow, don't you know?) Will the water still be hot? But the lights at the end of the block are on, your next-door neighbor’s light is on … your lights are on!

Now what are we going to do about that tree?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Dead Sea Scrolls

A few fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been on exhibit at the Science Museum in St. Paul for the past seven months, but for some reason, we waited until the last day of the show to see them. (Maybe it was the stiff $28 entry fee.) We might have missed the exhibit entirely except I was helping friends lay a limestone walkway through another friend’s back yard on Saturday morning. At one point Fran came walking by with a slab of stone about 1 by 2 feet in dimension cradled in the crook of her arm. I said, “Fran, do you know who you look like? Moses.”

“Yes, indeed,” she replied, raising an eyebrow. “And judging from what I see written on this tablet, you’re in deep trouble.” Then she brought up the subject of the scrolls. Weren’t they leaving town soon?

—a gray Sunday morning when we probably should have been in church. To tell you the truth, I haven’t been to church (except for weddings, funerals, and Christmas pageants) for a very long time. There were few people out on the street in downtown St. Paul at that hour. (Maybe everyone else was at church.) The line at the museum was modest. By 9:45 we were being ushered into the first room of one of the most interesting, informative, and well-designed exhibits I’ve seen in recent years.

My very sketchy understanding of the scrolls incorporated an extreme sect, the Essenes; a specific locale, Qumram; and a collection of texts that were found in caves above the Dead Sea by shepherds in the years immediately following WWII. I had no idea there was such radical disagreement among scholars as to the actual connections between these aspects of the story.

For example, some scholars believe that the town of Qumram wasn’t a religious community at all, but rather a pottery factory, a military garrison, or an aristocrat’s estate. Some scholars think that the Essenes wrote the scrolls, while others, with greater cogency, I think, find it impossible to believe that a collection of scrolls numbering more than nine hundred, all but a few of which are in different handwriting, were produced by a single small community.

That leaves open the possibility that the Essenes gathered the scrolls from many sources, or that the scrolls were hidden away by temple priests from Jerusalem (a scant thirteen miles way.)

Most of the exhibit was devoted to providing background to the discovery. For example, in one video display the successive empires that ruled over Jerusalem were graphically depicted by waves of color oozing across a map—the Hittites, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians (Alexander the Great, don’t you know?), the Romans, the Ottomans, the Caliphate, the Crusaders, the Mongols, the Seljuqs, and so on. Another video screen offered a bird’s eye view of what an individual approaching and entering the Temple in Jerusalem in its heyday would have seen every step of the way.

There were exhibits about the work scribes do, and displays of 2,000-year-old fabric, sheep sheers, perfume bottles, and tall clay jars of the type many of the scrolls were found in. One large diorama made clear how the fresh water flowing in various directions off the hills above the Dead Sea was channeled to good use by the residents of Qumram. Another explained why Jewish sects who built their religious year on different calendars—solar or lunar—got into trouble as they all tried to make use of the same temple for holidays. One large display made it easy to follow the track of the scrolls from the time they were discovered, offered for sale, and latched onto by covetous and proprietary scholars, to the moment decades later when they were finally made available to the world at large.

Finally, two hours after we’d entered the exhibit hall, we found ourselves in the room containing the scrolls themselves. I wouldn’t say that it was disappointing. But the lighting was very low, and the five fragments on display were in heavy cases faintly illuminated by inset florescent lights. All of them were small—about the size (and shape) of an orange peel. But when you bent over to get a closer look, the light from inside the case began to shine in your eyes, making the writing even harder to see.

I’d don’t read Hebrew or Aramaic, so I guess it doesn’t matter whether I could see the lettering well or not. A young couple wearing purple jerseys with Favre on the back were leaning over (and on) one of the cases, and I heard the man say, “Look here, honey. If you read it upside down it says kick.”

One of the reasons we went to the exhibit, of course, was to see the fragments themselves, in the flesh. Otherwise, we’d spend the rest of our lives saying, “I can’t believe we never went to see them.” Information is easy to come by: I have a few books lying around on the subject of the scrolls that I haven’t read. But to see one of the scrolls themselves. Right there in front of you. I was hoping for a moment of frisson, as the centuries fell away and the sheer presence of an artifact that Jesus or Paul or one of the disciples might have read or touched made itself felt. It came to me in a flicker or two, like a bulb that’s about to go out. No matter. The really significant thing about a scroll is that it preserves thought via language.

One thing the exhibit itself, fascinating though it was, failed to clarify is what new things we’ve learned due to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. All of the Old Testament books except Ester were found among them, thus taking us back a thousand years from the ninth-century texts that were hitherto the earliest extant. Yet the texts found in the caves at Qumram are evidently almost the same as the ones we’re familiar with—a testament to the skill of scribes across the centuries, I guess.

Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in any case, are less interesting than the books of the Bible. They seem to be routinely focused on peccadillos of conduct and cleanliness. I know this because that afternoon I pulled a copy of The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English off the shelf and started to read through them. Lots of stuff about elders and community organization and hierarchies and punishments. For example:

No man shall form any association for buying or selling without informing the guardian of the camp…

A man who falls asleep during a session of the Congregation shall be punished for thirty days…

No man shall bathe in dirty water or in water too shallow to cover a man…

There shall be one thousand cubits between the camp and the latrine…

… may not touch the liquids of the Congregation, for these render unclean the basket and the figs and the pomegranates if their juices ooze out when he squeezes them…
And so on. There are also beautiful hymns of thanksgiving, benedictions, and other poetic fragments, to be sure, and the scrolls have given Biblical scholars the opportunity to flesh out the astonishing variety of views and practices espoused by contending Jewish sects during the period before the destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e. Yet I came away from a half hour of perusing these texts with the feeling that the scribes and priests (and later rabbis) who assembled the Jewish canon upon which the Christian Old Testament is largely based did a pretty good job of editing the material.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Unusual Morning

I receive an email at 5:35 a.m. from a physician informing me that he wants to move ahead with his book about health care reform. That’s good news. (And he has some good ideas, too.)

I send off a sell-sheet to Kinkos for a book event to be held later this week at the downtown Minneapolis Library. A hundred copies. I keep thinking there must be someplace that will do it cheaper.

Then I spot an article in the New York Times: “Morals without God?” by Frans de Waal. He seems to have hit exactly the right tone, the right stance, reiterating the position advanced by British moralists in the seventeenth century that people have an indwelling moral sense—and chimps probably do, too. Amid the appreciative comments I see a reference to Plato’s Euthyphro. Something new to explore.

It’s still dark at 6:05, when it occurs to me I ought to go out and see the Hartley comet, which should be somewhere in the vicinity of Capella right about now. I tiptoe into the bedroom to grab my pants and a heavy fisherman sweater in the dark, lift the binoculars from their hook in the kitchen closet, and step outside, picking up the morning paper and switching off the front lamp as I go.

The concrete driveway is cold on my bare feet. The air is cold, too, it’s still quite dark. Orion is spectacular but there’s a swath of haze across the Big Dipper. I lie down on the pavement, shielded by the shadow of a big spruce tree from the streetlight glare. There, well beyond the Gemini Twins, is Capella. But nothing fuzzy. Nothing green. Nothing sporting a tail.

At a certain point, as I lie on the pavement in the dark, it occurs to me that it's a good thing the paperboy has already been here. He drives a big Buick.

Hilary is off until noon today. She had a tough day yesterday—old men arguing conservative politics (or asking her to type a letter!) when she has plenty of more important things to do. My gift to her this morning will be a chunk of silence and solitude. Which is a rare thing if your husband happens to work at home.

I transfer a few files onto a flashdrive, locate my seldom-used laptop, gather up the hard copy of a book I’m editing, throw the headphones and a few CDs into a briefcase along with the latest New York Review and a book called Winter by Rick Bass. But as I’m putting on my socks I notice there are leaf fragments all over the bedroom floor. No doubt I picked them up while I was lying in the driveway. Out comes the vacuum. (Yes, a most unusual morning.)

Light has come to the sky by the time I emerge from the house once again. I hear a white-throated sparrow twardling feebly from the bushes across the street. The tone is weak and tentative, there’s a reedy flutter to it, unlike the sure strong delivery of a mature bird. And to top it all off, he hasn’t quite learned the tune. Yet nothing will hold him back. He sings out again and again like a happy drunk, enjoying his own wayward version.

As I leave the neighborhood a Bangra tune erupts from the CD player. That catchy (if repetitive) number gives way to a standard (don't know the name) from a gig Stan Getz and Chet Baker played in Stockholm circa 1984. Mist covers the marshes and valleys on the golf course, and a wisp of white-pink cloud drifts upward from the skyscrapers downtown like a scarf at a royal joust. People are out everywhere, running, walking the dog, headed for work.

I’m out, too, and it feels good.

There are only two cars in the lot in front of Rustica Bakery. I’ve met a client here a few times—I think the barrista might almost recognize me. Her face is framed by bangs and pig-tails, and as I place my order she looks at me as if she thinks I’m about to say something funny.

Finally, I’m settled into a pleasant corner near the window. The laptop is plugged in, the headphones are on, Albeniz’s Iberia is floating agreeably through my thoughts. Checking my emails, I see that my order at Kinko’s is done already.

People thumb through the papers, consult their electronic devices, sip coffee, converse. The parking lot is filling up. The flashdrive sits here on the table, but I don’t feel much like plugging it in right now. That comes from the world I already know. This is the world I don’t know.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Is This Club Straight?

I’m thrown into a quandary when someone asks me if I golf. I could give them a long-winded answer about my two sets of Salvation Army clubs, my very infrequent early-morning visits to the Theodore Wirth par three five minutes from my house (where I seldom shoot anything less than 40), and the time during my university years when I played 33 holes on “the big course.”

Or I could just say no.

But yesterday my friend Dana and I headed out to Mississippi Dunes, a Scottish-style 18-hole course nestled into a curve of the Mississippi River south of Cottage Grove, armed with a Groupon and a very large supply of golf balls. Titlest 1. Topflight 3. I held onto a Bridgestone 2 for eight or nine holes and considered that an achievement in itself.

The Dunes has sand traps that look like submerged missile silos and hills lined with thick wooden planks. It seems that the folks who designed the course had both the military and recreational senses of the word “bunker” in mind when they put it together. It has enough deep rough to keep a botanist occupied all afternoon, and enough water flowing through it to cool a nuclear plant. It’s the kind of course where you can’t see the green until you cross two hills, a small forest, and a stretch of North Africa. The only way you can locate the green at that point is by following the cigar smoke of the foursome ahead of you. It’s a beautiful spread, all the same, and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.

The golf cart helped. (It came with the coupon.) Nothing brings out the boy in me more, I think, than those marvelous vehicles that jump to life like magic when you touch the accelerator, turn on a dime, and traverse the rolling fairways with ease. But even on wheels, it took us five hours to complete the course. I may have lost ten balls and found three. Dana shrewdly combed a grassy bank 200-yards down on the 18th hole and found five in one sweep.

“By this time,” he reasoned, “the golfers are getting so frustrated by their errant shots that they just say “Screw it!” and head for the clubhouse.”

I made a few long putts, and Dana hit a passing train (intentionally) with a very fine drive. As the day progressed we more consistently hunted up the ladies’ tees. (Why kid ourselves?) And on the last hole, which runs to 395 yards, I was on the green in three. Five putts later I had succeeded in playing myself entirely “out of the money.”

Still, it was a fabulous day. And I'm thinking that if I just keep my head down, and my left art stiff, cock the wrist at the proper moment, follow through... and strike the ball rather than the turf or thin air, everything will finally fall into place, once and for all.

Maybe next year.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Quiet Day at Hawk Ridge

We ventured north to Duluth on Saturday to see the hawks pass above (and sometimes below) Hawk Ridge. The huge kettles of broadwing hawks have moved through by now, thousands at a time, and we’d be more likely to catch sight of individual kestrels,, merlins, and red tailed hawks along with eagles, sharp-shinned hawks, and an occasional goshawk. Many of these birds come from the Yukon and other parts of extreme northern Canada, moving down the southern edge of the boreal forest until it hits Lake Superior. At that point they follow the shore, picking up the thermals rising from the lake north of Duluth, from the heights of which they can drift effortlessly off across Wisconsin for quite a ways.

But the wind was coming in from the east that day (I checked on-line before we left) which is not a good thing. It keeps the birds back up in the hills. But you’re always bound to see something up there—and to learn something from the experts and volunteers who mingle with the crowds on a regular basis.

By the time we arrived on the ridge it was approaching noon, and that brisk east wind was ruffling up Lake Superior something fierce, giving it a deep blue tinge against which the whitecaps were a dazzling white. One or two sailboats were struggling to make headway in the distance and three ore boats were visible out in front of the lift bridge.

An immature bald eagle passed by fairly low overhead from time to time, and a red tail appeared now and again, though the direction of flight seemed to be inland, away from the ridge. The highlight of the morning was the goshawk that one of the experts brought down from the banding station for us to see. She described the bird’s extraordinary tenaciousness—one such bird was observed chasing a rabbit for 45minutes! Once we’d all had a chance to ogle the bird, someone in the crowd forked over $100 for the privilege of releasing it.

While we were standing around in the sun and wind, scanning the northern horizon, I struck up a conversation with an elderly man who turned out to be from Maryland. He’d come for the week to watch the hawks, he was staying in a Motel 6 in West Duluth.

“This morning I drove out to the Sax-Zim Bog,” he said, “I saw some spruce grouse there!” That’s was a lucky sighting, if you ask me.

He grilled me concerning the northern species he might see off in the woods. Black-backed woodpeckers, boreal chickadees, bohemian waxwings, hawk owls (too early in the season). He asked me, “What’s in those big freighters out there?”
“Iron ore, probably,” I told him. He hadn’t been more than a few miles up the lake, and I urged him to drive at least as far north as Silver Bay.

On the day we were up there, 148 hawks were sighted. Rather a feeble result, considering the total for the season stands now at 43,674. (See the whole chart here.) But we’d had a good time, and we also enjoyed smelling the roses at Leif Ericson park, waiting patiently at the lift bridge as an ore boat went by, and watching men in wetsuits trying to get their hang gliders aloft out in the surf at Park Point.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Book Convention

The Midwest Booksellers Association Convention (previously known as UMBA), takes place every fall at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul, or some other similarly large and un-cozy location. It’s presumed purpose (and who am I to challenge it?) is to allow booksellers to gear up for the holiday season by making direct and immediate contact with distributors and publishers so as to become more familiar with their fall lists. It also allows booksellers and distributors to hobnob with their colleagues and competitors from around the region in a collegial atmosphere. Free books are available in moderate quantities, sometimes signed by authors, who are also often present at breakfasts, luncheons, interview spots, and signings throughout the weekend, at the behest of the convention organizers or their own publishers.

In recent years I have attended quite a few such conventions, for no other purpose than to set up the booth of the publisher I often work for, Nodin Press, or to take it down again at the end of the following day. I usually don’t linger long, but this year I stuck around almost from beginning to end, though I'm neither a publisher nor a bookstore owner nor a buyer nor an author of any reputation myself. It’s not for the sake of the books themselves. It seems that I somewhat enjoy reconnecting with old book buddies and making new ones.

For such hangers-on as myself (of which, let me assure you, there are a sizable contingent at this event), the challenge lies in passing an entire day within the environs or three or four aisles without boring any of the principals overmuch or stealing time from their job at hand, which is to present their new books to genuine customers. Of course, I also spent a good deal of time at the Nodin Press booth helping my friend Norton, who owns the company. It’s always a pleasure to work (and mostly just gab) there alongside Richard Stegal, another former colleague from the Bookmen.

Among the highlights of the morning’s interactions out on the floor I might mention the discussion I had with Erik Anderson of the U of M Press about its new coffee-table book on Finnish saunas. (Also about their attractive new promotional coffee cup, which I gather he had a hand in designing.) Erik’s an affable young fellow with strong connections to the North Shore, whose post seemed to be at the corner of the aisle, deflecting gadflies like me from the more serious business going on deeper within the booth.

I also enjoyed chatting with one of the grand old men of Wisconsin letters, Jerry Apps, about the mixed blessing of having four new books coming out from different publishers in the same year. He has been active at various times in his career in both academia and the publishing world, not to mention a stint as a county agent, and he’s also taught creative writing for forty years. During that time he’s written a sizable number of books about barns and cheese and horse-drawn vehicles, as well a few novels. “I also write poetry,” he told me, semi-confidentially, “but it’s nothing special. I sometimes work it into a novel as the poems a character has written. I’m making fun of it, really.”

The Nodin Press booth sits cheek by jowl with that of Adventure Distribution, which actually sells Norton’s books, and it’s always fun to catch up with Jody about her children’s hockey careers and her husband’s Iowa-based wholesale organic grain business. I also chatted with Adventure’s marketing director Bo about the beautiful National Geographic maps they’ve started carrying, and how difficult it is to make field guides for a state like California, which has such a wide range of environments.

Down at the Minnesota Historical Society Press I ran into another old friend, Peg Meier, who has just come out with a new book about children, Wishing for a Snow Day.

“I hear you’re going to do a book with Gail Rosenblum,” she said as I was plopping myself down on a chair beside her. “How did that come about?”
“I believe Gail made an appointment with Norton, showed him her stuff, and he liked it. She told me it was like a dream.”
I’ve known Peg since the days when Bring Warm Clothes was a hot new title and she would stop by the Bookmen loading dock at least once a week with a fresh supply. She later wrote a lengthy and generous review for the Strib of the first book I edited, O Clouds Unfold! by local literary giantess Brenda Ueland. Our paths often cross at the Twin Cities Film Festival. She’s currently working on another interesting project—editing a diary she found in the MHS archives of a young woman who later donated her house to the state. It’s now the governor’s mansion.
Brett and Sheila Waldman were exuding energy and good cheer from the center of the central aisle throughout the day, and a few booths down the way Bill Roth commanded a lengthy table in front of a giant Ingram banner. Bill and I go way back, to the days when his son Adam (who recently emerged from law school into the cruel workaday world) was an infant in a car seat staring over at the intruder (me) scrunched beside him in the back seat of Bill’s little red Datsun station wagon. Those were the days of $3.00-an-hour wages and a 1972 butterscotch Volvo with four cylinders topped by two very finicky carburetors, which often sat idle on the street in front of our apartment on Bryant Square.

Now here we were, decades later, discussing his wide-ranging (and ever-changing) sales territory. “I lost Montana but picked up Colorado,” he said. “Colorado is a reading state.”
“Well, you’ve got the Tattered Cover in Denver,” I replied, trying to sound knowledgeable. “And I suppose there are some Christian bookshops in Colorado Springs.”
“But Durango!” he said. “There’s a lot going on down there.”
He also offered up a new slant on the Kindle. “When I go over to someone’s house, I like to see their books. It gives me some insight into what they’re like, who they are. If all of your books are on a Kindle, what are you going to see? Nothing!” Bill has been to my house a few times. He knows he’s preaching to the choir.

Rounding a corner on one occasion late in the afternoon, I came upon Marly Cornell dipping the last piece of an oversized pretzel into a tub of mustard. She told me aout a few of her projects that are in the works. On down the way Sybil Smith shared a few insights about the technology of ebooks, on which subject she is now an expert, and Stanley Gordon West told me about his new contract with Algonquin. “They’re going to reissue Blind Your Ponies,” he told me. “I’ve already sold forty thousand copies on my own, but they’re going to redesign it and get it into markets in the South that I haven’t touched.”

Among the more interesting new acquaintances I made that day was that of the rep from Trim Distributors, a tall, elderly gentleman from Chicago whose name I never caught. Trim distributes university presses, and I tactlessly brought up the academic remainder firm Labyrinth; he thought I was talking about a used bookstore in Manhattan, and at that point the conversation really got interesting. I averted my eyes from Foucault’s The History of Madness, a fat red volume lying face up on the display table as a bookend, and we agreed that it did make a good bookend. I expressed an interest in Theodor Adorno’s The Culture Industry, standing on its side among other titles in the row, and he said, “You’re the only person in this building who would be interested in that.” He agreed to swap me at the end of the day for a Nodin Press title, and we settled on a mystery anthology, The Silence of the Loons.

Back at the Nodin booth, I got the opportunity to meet Becky Oatman, the author of The Lindsay Whalen Story, who’d arrived to sign some books. We’d emailed each other back and forth perhaps two hundred times in the course of the summer, while trying to whip her book into shape, and it was nice to chat face-to-face at last. We took a stroll down the aisles together and struck up a conversation with Fred Lauing, the sales manager of the University of Wisconsin Press, whom I’d met the previous evening at a wine-and-cheese soirée. On that occasion we’d gotten into a discussion of why the keys on a typewriter (invented in Wisconsin, don’t you know?) were not arranged in an order to maximize convenience and efficiency, and also explored the interesting fact that all parts of Wisconsin west of Eau Claire might as well be in Minnesota. Fred used to live in River Falls, and Becky currently lives in a very small town east of Eau Claire, so they were in a good position to tackle that issue. But the conversation soon drifted toward the fascinating subject of what living in a small town is really like, what the people there actually do for a living, and how come the produce in small-town grocery stores is so bad. Fred also knows a good deal about geology, and before long he was describing the drumlin fields of southwestern Wisconsin in poetic detail.
Near the end of the day, as people were beginning to pack up, I made a final sweep down the aisles and stopped for the first time at the Graywolf booth, where four your women (two of them might have been from Milkweed) were sitting in a row like unpopular (though far from homely) girls at a high school dance. Two of them leapt to their feet immediately with almost exaggerated energy, as if I’d released them from a fairy tale spell, and came over to chat. My eye eventually fell on the new book by Per Petterson, whose writing I truly admire. We discussed Out Stealing Horses, In The Wake, and why To Siberia didn’t have quite the same appeal (too many Danish street names). Before I had a chance to utter the fatal request (Can I have this?) one of them saved me from that embarrassment by saying, “That’s a display copy, but we’ll be glad to send you one if you’ll fill out this form.” Suddenly they reminded me of the very popular musical duo from Finland, The Polka Chicks.

I didn’t fare quite so well at the Consortium booth opposite, where I immediately got off on the wrong foot by unceremoniously blurting out, “Where’s Bill?” I was referring to another old friend, Bill Mochler, who works for the firm. Ruth Burger, the thin young woman with short, copper-colored hair and a miniscule ornament in her nostril to whom I had addressed that remark, replied, trying to hide her annoyance, “You mean Bill Mochler? He’s not here today.”

Once we’d gotten past that gaff I told her how much I liked the kinds of things Consortium handles—edgy European fiction and poetry. I glanced at a few obscure paperbacks, and then made my second faux pas. “How many of these titles have you actually read?” I asked her.

It was an innocent question. I’m a slow reader myself, and, to paraphrase a remark by Montaigne, “It’s been many years since I spent more than an hour with any book.” Consortium is a distributor, not a publisher, so it could easily happen that a marketing rep might arrive at work one morning to find that her firm had just taken on another “list” and she suddenly has forty new titles to become familiar with. Yes, it was an innocent question, but how was Ruth to know that? She looked at me with a slightly shocked expression, as if she’d been affronted, and said, “I’ve read this one, and this one, and this one,” shaking the individual books vigorously in their little stands on the table one after another, and then looking for further examples.

“Hold off. I’m very impressed,” I said to her. “I can’t imagine how you could keep up with it all. Could you name a current favorite?”

She directed me to The Twin, by the Dutch novelist Gerbrand Bakker. “It’s quiet, but it really sucks you in,” she said.

I stood staring at the picture on the cover for a few minutes—a photo of four distant cows on a very flat landscape covered with water, with white clouds above. The photo was taken with a fish-eye lens, and it exuded expansiveness and silence and perhaps monotony. Even the cover sucked you in.
At that point I took the third strike, as the words came tumbling out of my mouth. “Can I have this?”, though I knew the answer full well already.
“That’s a display copy, but make a mental note of the title, and the publisher,” she said. “They’re issuing a lot of good things in translation these days.” And off she went.
What this little recount fails to convey, I’m afraid, is that throughout our exchange, Ruth was actually trying with all her heart to be nice.

And speaking of nice. For as long as I have been attending these events, the top slot in my heart has been reserved for the duo from the Wisconsin Historical Society, Kate Thompson and Kathy Borkowski. We became acquainted so many years ago I no longer remember the date. Richard Stegal and I were sitting at a table chowing down appetizers prior to one of those fascinating yet tedious writer’s dinners they no longer hold, and Kate and Kathy were looking for a place to sit. I invited them to join us, we struck up a conversation—and although our paths cross only once a year, it seems we’ve been chatting ever since. Their personalities are different, needless to say, but both are bright, considerate, good natured, curious, and wry. They’re also very professional. (Don’t get them started on endpapers: you’ll drive them into a tizzy.) You can see this commitment in the books they produce.

Yet I wouldn’t include Kate and Kathy among those bibliophiles for whom the printed book is a temple of exquisite typography and design, with content a matter of secondary concern. They take the press’s mission seriously: to tell the story of Wisconsin history. Many of the writers they draw upon are professionals, of course, but they’re no less interested in bringing important aspects of Wisconsin history to light through the experience and research of ordinary citizens with something unusual to share. Though these goals are not dissimilar from the ones Nodin Press pursues, to be frank, I don’t think much about such things when I’m at the WHS booth. Kate and Kathy are simply a lot of fun to be around.

As the day winds to a close and everyone starts to “break down” their booths in a state of exhausted relief, the question looms—whether or not to attend the final cash-bar book-signing frenzy where publishers (red badge), book-buyers (blue badge), and hanger’s on (black badge), are all welcome to congregate, chat, and gather books freely from the authors positioned behind the signing tables scattered throughout the reception hall.
It sounds like fun. Yet as I stood in front of the cash bar, I refrained from ordering anything. “First,” I said to the bartender, “I ought to see if there’s anyone here I really want to talk to.” Scanning the room, I saw very few faces I recognized, and none whose ear I hadn’t bent already. It was time to go home.

I had reached the lobby when Norton rounded the corner in the company of mystery-writer Kent Krueger, whom we’ve worked with on a few anthologies. Kent’s new book, Vermilion Drift, is doing well. We shook hands and he rushed ahead to the signing tables. “I saw your review in the Times,” I shouted as he vanished from sight.
Norton, his SUV fully loaded with posters and books from the booth, had found a good parking spot out in front of the Ordway and wandered back to enjoy the convention wrap-up, so I returned to the hall with him. By this time the room had filled considerably, mostly with people lining up in front of the signing tables. I stood in line in front of the bar next to Kathy Borkowsi and while we were waiting our turn I tossed a vague query her way and she began to tell me something about the upcoming Great Lakes convention.
“I don’t want to hear any more about books,” I said. “Tell me something new about you.”
“Well, my partner and I are going to Morocco in a few weeks.”
Wow. That sounded exciting. “My wife and I have been to Spain a few times,” I said, “but I’ve only seen Morocco from Tarifa on the opposite shore. It’s about an inch off the horizon, purple with mountains. Very alluring.”

They’ll be travelling with a guide they found through some chefs in Madison, Kathy told me, staying with the guide’s sister for a few days, learning some regional dishes. Learning how to fluff couscous the right way, I suspect. She was boning up on her French.“I asked the guide how many people were on the tour,” she said. “‘Just you two,’ the man replied.”

When we got to the front of the line the bartender said to me, “I see you’re back,” which might have given my Wisconsin friends the idea that I’d already downed a few. No matter. A few minutes later, Kate, Bill and I were chatting, and I expressed a mild astonishment that so much honest effort had been expended that day to advance the printed word. Kate shot back: “That’s what I like about you. You’re so optimistic.” For a split second I wasn’t sure if she was making fun of me, but she assured me she wasn’t. “I was feeling sort of blue this afternoon at how much this convention has shrunk over the years,” she said, “and here you are, amazed at all the energy.”

I suppose I haven’t been coming long enough see the changes. But it might also be that, for better or worse, I’m not overly concerned about selling books. One book in the right hands is a miracle of communication—though it’s not going to pay the bills.

By the time the event finally ended I’d stood in a few book-lines myself, and I arrived home with my bag moderately loaded. Four of the six I brought home have roots in the north country. News to Me, Star-Tribune books editor Laurie Herzel’s memoir, is set largely in Duluth; both Kent Krueger’s Vermilion Drift and Legarde Grover’s book of Indian tales from the Boise Fort reservation, The Dance Boots, take place on Minnesota’s Iron Range; and Season of Water and Ice, a novel by newcomer Donald Lystra, is set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (I’d chatted with Lystra earlier in the day at the signing table about Jim Harrison’s nifty little novel, Farmer, also set in the UP. ) I got the fifth title, A Short History of Wisconsin, in a swap with Kate for my own recent book of tales, Vacation Days. And down there in the bottom of the bag, for balance and contrast, I guess, was The Culture Industry by good old Theodor Adorno.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Yosemite People

Back from two weeks in sunny California, touring some of the world’s greatest countryside, ogling the world’s tallest trees (redwoods), the world’s most massive trees (sequoias), and the world’s oldest living things (bristlecone pines). What struck me in particular, however, was the beautiful chocolate-brown bark of the California red fir, a tree I’d never heard of before. Sniffing the pineapple-vanilla scent of the bark of the Jeffrey pine was also quite a thrill.

Yosemite is a land of amazing vistas and hardly less amazing crowds. But here I exaggerate a little. And in any case, the people you meet in the midst of such splendor can be interesting.

For example, while waiting for the bus to ferry us back to the parking lot from Mariposa Grove we struck up a conversation with a Latino couple—hardly an oddity in California. But these folks turned out to be from the Yucatan. They’d flown north to Denver to escape the searing heat back home and were now touring the parks. They’d loved the Rockies but were surprised to arrive at Yellowstone and find that there were no accommodations available. “We drove to the nearest Wal-Mart and bought a tent,” the man said cheerfully. “It’s been OK,” his wife added doubtfully.

We got to talking about books and libraries and scholarship, and he informed us that he’d contributed a few lines to a Wikipedia article about a famous garden in his home town."They don't really check anything," he said. "The essay is very choppy."

The next morning, on our way down the trail to North Dome, we met up with a man from the Bay area who had recently retired and taken up "search and rescue." He and his buddies were in Yosemite to take some lessons from the local pros. “These guys really know how to get people off cliffs,” he told us. As if on cue, a rescue helicopter came into view, about the size of a pinto bean, moving slowly up the valley on its way to snatch someone from death’s door at Half Dome or down ion the Tenaya Valley.

At one point on our way back through the woods to the car we stopped to rest and took off our shoes. A ranger came by and I began to grill her about the trees. “I was afraid you were going to bring that up,” she said. “Trees are not my strong suit.” Anna is from Michigan, she graduated recently from a college in the U.P. She’d volunteered every summer at Yosemite, and when she applied for a job after graduating they found her one. “Michigan is not a good place to find work right now,” she added. The park service supplies her with a cabin by a creek, free of charge, and she’s having a ball.

I asked her for some hiking recommendations and she suggested the trail to Gaylor Lakes. “The initial climb is sort of stiff,” she said, “but it starts at 10,00 feet, so you’re up amid the peaks in no time.” She also recommended that we grab a bite to eat at the Mobil gas station in Lee Vining on our way out of the park. “When my parents visit I always take them there,” she said. “Some five-star chef runs the place.” (Both tips proved to be good ones.)

Back at our campsite at North Pines in the Valley, I struck up a conversation with our neighbor, a crusty old man who had recently purchased the old trailer that was parked in the next site. “I’ve been to Half Dome fourteen times,” he told me. “I would never go there again unless somebody wanted me to take them there.” I told him we had no intention of hiking to Half Dome, and he replied, “It isn’t that hard. I’m sure you could do it. But the key is to start at midnight. Christ, the trail is ten feet wide! You can’t miss it. Then you’ll get to the top at sunrise, and be back at camp by noon.”

I assured him we were not going to Half Dome any time soon, but he insisted on explaining in great detail why a trip to Cloud’s Rest would be even better. Sure, there was that section with a thousand-foot drop on either side. But you could do the nineteen-mile trek from there down past Half Dome and Nevada Falls, and it would mostly be downhill!

His wife, who was grilling chicken nearby, invited us to stay for dinner, but we declined, explaining that we’d already consumed large quantities of Tostitos and salsa down at the riverside. “If you’re ever in LA be sure to look us up,” she cried sincerely as we were leaving to watch the moon rise from the meadow out in the Valley.

The next day we headed up to Tuolumne Meadows, and on a hike out to Mono Pass we were overtaken by an enthusiastic young couple from Plymouth, England. They’d done some hikes in Wales and the Alps, but this was their first visit to an American National Park. They were on the ninth day of an eighteen-day wilderness trip, but to judge from their energy and enthusiasm (not the mention their clothes) you would have guessed they’d just stepped off the bus. “A glass of orange juice,” the woman said, laughing. “All I can think of is a glass of fresh orange juice.”