Thursday, March 25, 2010

Spring Wine Talk

I’ll never forget my first bottle of Two-Buck Chuck. Not that the wine was so good. It was the setting. We were camping in the Anza-Borrego desert of southern California with our friend Betty Sword; she had brought a few logs from a camphor tree she’d cut down recently in her yard, and also the top to a garbage can, to serve as a fire-pit. (Don’t want to scar up the desert, you know.) I scrounged a few dead trees (three feet tall) just as the sun was going down to make a tripod. I don’t remember what we cooked, but I remember we had a bottle of Charles Shaw Cabernet. Two Buck Chuck. It suited the occasion.

In Minnesota Charles Shaw is often called Three Buck Chuck because that’s what it costs here at Trader Joe’s—the only place where you can get it. I most often find myself buying the chardonnay, which is tasty and no more cloying than many other chardonnays that cost four times the price. Some wine-drinkers, I know, eschew chardonnay altogether, due to its almost overpowering weirdness, which has been compared to furniture polish laced with honey. Yet chardonnay is still the most popular white wine grape in the world, and there’s a reason. Though it can be cloying, it’s also more rich and flavorful than other grape varieties, generally speaking. Nearly all of the great white wines of the world are made from chardonnay grapes—though almost all of them also come from Burgundy and cost a fortune. The bargain-bin white wine enthusiast thus spends his or her oenological career bouncing like a pinball back and forth between chardonnays and everything else—alboriños, torrontes, pinot grigio, pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc, sylvaner.

The middle ground is taken up by those wines we can’t afford, the French chardonnays that have famous hyphenated names and more acidity, a touch of minerality, clarity, balance. In this category, the lowly Macon-Village is the champion of working-class consumers like me, though it often disappoints.

Yet the other day, I noticed a bottle of Macon-Village on the bottom shelf at Trader Joe’s from a negociant I’d never heard of—Michel Picard. I was almost shocked to discover that it had a hint of the complexity we seek out in Burgundian whites, and none of the mentholated overtones we fear to encounter in their California counterparts. Googling the brand on-line I came up with this report from a wine review blog:

Michel Picard is a negociant house in Burgundy that specializes in regional French wines at bargain prices. And they are pretty good. So who says you can't drink French on a budget? Bargains to look for from Burgundy include the 2006 Macon-Villages Chardonnay ($9.99) and the 2006 Beaujolais-Villages ($8.99) and a lovely 2006 Vouvray ($9.99) from the Loire Valley.

Trader Joe’s Price? $3.99.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Theatre Pro Rata

I’d never heard of Theatre Pro Rata. I didn’t know where it was or who was in the company. I went because I wanted to see the play. Is that so strange?

The play in question being The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. Or so they say. No one really knows who wrote it. The play has been described as the first Elizabethan tragedy, which seems ridiculous, considering how murky the chronology of the era is. It dates from the early 1590s, though the evidence is scanty. Yet in 1589 Thomas Nashe was writing: “Yet English Seneca read by candlelight yields many good sentences…; and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets of tragical speeches.” Such remarks (and there are others) discomfit Shakespeare scholars who like to date Hamlet to 1601. So while some speculate that The Spanish Tragedy might have been a source for Hamlet, it could just as well have been the other way around. In any event, few dispute that the Elizabethans revived the tragedy as a theatrical form, which had been moribund since Roman times, and The Spanish Tragedy is a classic example of the genre: It seemed like something I ought to see.

The theatre itself (The Gremlin Theatre) is located near the corner of Raymond and University, in the vicinity of the Raymond Gallery, Jay’s Café, and Blue Moon Studio. There’s a pet store down the street where you can buy large snakes and perhaps even an iguana. The tickets are on a sliding scale from $14 to $41, and when you hand them a twenty they’re courteous enough to ask if you want change.

I arrived late due to an accident near the Lowry tunnel, and though I had a copy of Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born in my pocket, I stepped into the theatre just a moment before the curtain rose. (There is no curtain, but you know what I mean.) It looked to be a young crowd, many of them theater students and friends of cast-members, no doubt; the three post-adolescents seated directly behind me were actors or technical people who kept up a constant stream of anecdotal theater-chatter as I hastily scanned the program, looking for I know not what. I was thankful that one of the trio had been resting his foot on the back of the seat directly in front of him since he arrived, attempting to preserve his sight-line, and thus inadvertently keeping it open for me. It was a good seat.

As for the play itself, it took a little while to build up a head of steam. The actors were all fairly young and for the most part their voices were not commanding, even in such a small theatre space. To be fair, it isn’t easy for a bunch of twenty-somethings to generate atmosphere when they have to stand around in economical costumes during the opening scene of a play pretending to be seasoned warriors and diplomats, delivering lines like “Tell us about the battle,” nodding at one another and illustrating military stratagems with dominoes. (I saw the Guthrie production of Macbeth recently, and though the costumes were better and the voices deeper, it had the same problem in the early going—bringing gravity and authenticity to the small-talk of kings and courtiers that we’ve only just met. The Guthrie production benefited from an elaborate ten-minute battle-sequence with soldiers descending on ropes wielding machine guns before the play got going.) But as the play wore on, we got to know everyone, their parts became richer, and it seemed that they themselves could feel the thinness disappear. Of special note were Keith Prusak as the noble Hieronimo and Clarence Wethern as the conniving Lorenzo. Valerie Rigsbie was also top-flight from beginning to end, in several parts, though it seemed she had been dropped in from a different century.

The story of The Spanish Tragedy is complex enough to get lost in, which is good. I won’t describe it in detail. A ghost and his companion, Revenge, are lurking in the shadows throughout, and though it seems they could easily have been dispensed with, then we wouldn’t really have been seeing the play. Besides, the ghost has fine soliloquies at both ends of the drama and his leering presence does add to the strangeness of the proceedings.

Meanwhile, the focus of the play changes midway, shifting from the amours of Bel-Imperia (who loves Horatio) and the machinations of her brother Lorenzo (who prefers the noble Portuguese captive Balthazar to be her husband) to the grief and rage of Horatio’s father Hieronimo following the murder of his son. The play has a mad scene, a feigned mad scene, a play-within-a-play, a ghost, and (as I mentioned) a character named Horatio, all of which may remind us of Hamlet—although these elements are not arranged in the same way, nor do they serve the same purposes. It also has beautiful lines we wish we could remember, but won’t, because, unlike Hamlet, we haven’t seen the play ten times. For example, at one point, after hiring an underling to commit a murder and then arranging for the woman to be caught in the act, Lorenzo (who has already arranged for Horatio’s murder) offers a chilling defense of his actions.

Thus must we work that will avoid distrust;
Thus must we practice to prevent mishap,
And thus one ill another must expulse.
This sly enquiry of Hieronimo
For Bel-imperia breeds suspicion,
And this suspicion bodes a further ill.
As for myself, I know my secret fault,
And so do they; but I have dealt for them.
They that for coin their souls endangered,
To save my life, for coin shall venture theirs:
And better it's that base companions die,
Than by their life to hazard our good haps.
Nor shall they live, for me to fear their faith:
I'll trust myself, myself shall be my friend;
For die they shall, slaves are ordained to no other end.
In the end, The Spanish Tragedy is simpler and more direct than Hamlet, in both speech and action, which is both a good and a bad thing. I think it might have benefitted from a few yards of scarlet cloth to simulate all the blood. And the first act might have been more intelligible had it been made clearer that Lorenzo’s preference for Balthazar over Horatio had a class basis. (But I probably just missed something.) Considered on its own terms, The Spanish Tragedy is a rollicking good time, with romance, suspicion, nobility and knavery, shootings, hangings, knifings, and six dead bodies on the stage as the final curtain drops. (There is no curtain, but you know what I mean.)

I spoke with artistic director Carin Bratlie at intermission, and she mused whether this production might be a regional premier. We can be thankful that Theatre Pro Rata took on the challenge, and made such a rousing success of it.

Now I almost wish I hadn’t asked for change.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pushing the Season

The notion that spring begins on a particular day is false and misleading, as anyone knows who spends a bit of time outdoors. It is certainly true that the days and nights are now roughly the same length, and almanacs have been reporting such information for centuries, but the meaning of the word “spring” and the timing of its arrival is something to be decided by poets, not astronomers, and that includes all of us.

It is no less wrong-headed, it seems to me, to consider the call of the cardinal in January as a sign of spring. And nowadays you can see robins in Minnesota on any day of the year—they’ve been hanging out in the swamp north of Wirth Lake all winter. No, spring arrives by fits and starts, on a different schedule each year, and it always takes its sweet time doing so. It’s a smell in the air, the sight of bright sun on running melt-water, a certain leaden grayness on the lake ice, and the swelling of the buds on the maple trees.

The other day I saw a goldfinch on the feeder that was turning yellow. You can imagine what a thrill that was! I grilled vegetables one balmy evening not long ago, and last Saturday we discovered a new bike trail that cuts through the woods behind the golf course just south of our house to connect with the Luce Line, so we can now ride to the Golden Valley Library or post office—or all the way to Waterton, which is 30 miles away, for that matter—without crossing the street.

I heard some red-winged blackbirds squawking this morning for the first time, and we also spotted a magnificent V of Canada geese passing overhead during a visit to Hyland Park Reserve. The event took on greater interest when a flock of tundra swans approached at the same altitude heading due west. The swan formation clipped the trailing column of the geese, and there was fifteen seconds of commotion as the two strings of birds struggled to continue on their paths. Ten or twelve of the geese ended up winging it with the swans for a hundred yards before recognizing their mistake and returning to their own pack.

During the next half hour three more V-shaped flocks of brilliant white swans passed overhead, perhaps a hundred birds in each, and in one of them we noticed two Canada geese embedding in the train. Well, why not?

I may have been pushing the season a little, but on Thursday I bought two rock-hard tomatoes, a package of greenhouse basil, and a very fresh head of organic garlic, which I chopped and mixed into a topping for grilled bread. It was a little too cold yesterday to be sitting outside eating it, but we were suitably dazzled by the afternoon light streaming in through the windows past the bare trees.

As the light faded from the sky we watched two films that are worth mentioning: Schultz Gets the Blues and The Ladies #1 Detective Agency. The Int’l Film Festival is approaching, and none too soon. For there are plenty of gray days in springtime. In fact, at some other time I might argue that spring doesn’t really begin until May.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Daylight Savings

It's six o'clock and sunny. (But it's really only five o'clock, which explains why the sun is still so high.) So my delight is somewhat muted.

It was 68 degrees yesterday. Two more degrees and everyone would have gotten to go home at 3 (an old Bookmen tradition). But now I work at home. So at 3 I suppose I would have gone off somewhere else.

More sun at night means less sun in the morning, of course (on any given day of the year) and I like to get up when there are still purple shadows and pink clouds here and there.

Yet daylight savings time is a trick. A con. I can't remember why it was invented. Was it farm kids in the fields or school kids walking home from school who were supposed to benefit?

I can remember my parents discussing its virtues and defects when it was relatively new. (Kids remember what their parents talk about.)

How many times the sun has jogged a little--back and forth, back and forth--since then!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A (Not so) Dreary March Evening

What better prospect on a dreary evening than to venture across the broad and foggy expanse of the Minnesota River Valley, with its endless backwaters and leafless trees, to listen to a presentation at the Prior Lake Library about dead bodies unearthed in Irish bogs or on the Mississippi River flats at Hidden Falls.

As you may already have guessed, our local mystery queen, Erin Hart, author of Haunted Ground and the just-released False Mermaid, was going to speak, and she’d brought along her husband Patty O’Brien, the Irish button accordionist extraordinaire, to provide accompaniment. Paddy had recruited two friends of his, Don and Sherry Ladig, to fill out the ensemble.

A few days earlier, as it happens, Don had been telling me about this ad hoc gig on the way back to his house after having defeated me in racquetball 3 games to 1. Of course, I already knew all about it, because my wife Hilary is the branch manager of the Prior Lake Library where Erin was going to speak.

Now, you may be wondering how Don could have beaten me at racquetball 3 games to 1. There’s an answer to that question, but we’ll leave that for another time. Right now we’re going to consider how pleasant it is to go to a reading that isn’t really a reading, but a performance that incorporates music, images, talk, and a few snippets of reading into an intriguing whole.

In the course of her talk Erin spent a bit of time explaining how she developed the elements of a mystery. This wasn’t a technical writerly analysis so much as a description of the intuitive process by which she works up the layers, both contemporary and historical, of her stories. She fleshed out the long tradition of wee folk and silkies in Ireland, and she told a few anecdotes about strange coincidences that had greased the path of her own research. All the while a power-point presentation was going haywire in the background, which lent a pleasingly jagged and poetic air to the event, like a poem by Pierre Reverdy. Erin also did read a few choice passages from The False Mermaid, and the recitation had a subtly compelling theatrical air, as if she were singing softly with pursed lips—as if there were actually mystery and danger lurking in the underbrush.

Meanwhile, the musical interludes took boisterousness and melancholy turns, as Irish music tends to do, and the projected photographs of harbor seals and moss-covered two-thousand foot cliffs added to the haunting feling that we had “passed through the door to the other side” for a minute or two.

More than sixty people from the Prior Lake community and further afield were in attendance, and it was clear from the questions they raised after the talk that they were fans. They were familiar with Erin’s first two novels, and thrilled to have the author herself in their midst. And isn’t this, the presence of a genial, down-to-earth writer (or musician) the most immediate and trustworthy doorway to the other world ... on a dreary evening in March?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

War Roads

Our route across the water-filled pot-holes and hard-packed snow debris of North Minneapolis’s riverside industrial corridor to War Roads, the new exhibit at the Minnesota Photo Center by Star-Tribune staff photographer Richard Sennott, was strangely fitting—though in reverse. Sennott has visited the Middle East several times for the Strib, and his recent assignment took him out across flat, roadless desert expanses in 100-vehicle caravans through swirling dirt and dust so thick it was often hard to breath, let alone focus a camera. Sennott did manage to get some stunning photos of the procession, and he also produced several ingenious compositions from the inside of moving vehicles. In one photo the dusty road ahead is mirrored in a soldier’s sunglasses. Another compelling shot captures the crystal atmosphere of the hot desert night, with a soldier sleeping alongside his vehicle under a blazing canopy of stars.

The show at the photo center includes photos from all of Sennott’s trips to the Middle East, however, and they run the gamut from almost brutally clinical shots of the victims of Saddam Hussein’s tear gas campaigns in Kurdistan to lovely group compositions of a roadside wedding.

Wandering the halls of the spacious gallery creates an effect that’s rather different from seeing a political documentary or watching an on-line slideshow. As the focus shifts from centuries-old patterns of dress and commerce to almost random roadside violence and the uniformed rigor of modern military protocol, the soul of region itself—its trials and its enduring dignity—begins to take hold of us. And individual faces step out from the circumstances of isolated incidents described in a newspaper article to expose hints of lives lived, the details of which we can only guess at. The distant mountains, moments of casual horseplay, grief-stricken peasants, soldiers using laptops in their makeshift bunks, children heading off to school—it’s a great and varied show, and Sennott’s affection for both the people and the landscapes rings out from every part of it.

The Star-Tribune deserves a round of applause for sending Sennott to Iraq and Afganistan, and kudos also go to the Minnesota Photo Center for hosting the show.

You can watch a slide-show (and get information about the exhibit itself) by clicking here.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


I was reading The Woman in the Dunes but grew tired of its misanthropic tone—and all the sand.

I opened a book called Hermeneutics as Politics but found it too much absorbed in senseless rebuttals and criticism of positions that no one but an academic would take seriously in the first place.

I stepped out onto the deck. The waves have come up. (Who can say why? The wind was from the northwest all day today!)

The moon is full or close to it. Mars burns beneath Castor and Pollex—a third twin.

The surf thunders to its own irregular rhythm, rising and falling.

Take a deep breath, there are hints of tree spice in the frigid air.

The raft of ice that was hugging the shore last night is gone and the moonlight sparkles far out to sea.

Closer to shore it darts across waves that have not yet broken like a thousand fluid fireflies.

Returning inside to the poems of Po Chu-I, I read:
“…but for lofty sentiments, I stay close to things themselves,
Green moss, rock, bamboo-shoots, water lilies in white bloom…”