Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Screaming Clarity

These last few days have been so cool, clear, and dry they make you want to scream. We’ve done some grilling on the deck, and then watched the various backyard birds come and go to the feeders as evening slowly descends: goldfinches, chickadees, nuthatches, house finches, downies, cardinals—sometimes scrapping with one another, more often taking their turn.

That 16-mile spin along the bicycle path at Elm Creek Park has never seemed so fine. The water in the creek is high, the raspberries and blackberries are getting ripe. Lots of wildflowers in the fields, and birds still singing everywhere. It’s the best suburban trail in the Twin Cities. The terrain rises and falls, you pass through woods of several kinds, across open fields, past swamps, and nary a McMansion in sight. We took the route a month ago and surprised a red fox and a lone turkey out for a stroll. The other day we saw less wildlife but the prairie flowers are coming into bloom, including the bright orange butterfly weed.

You can see a few photos I took along the trail here.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Doll's House

The Guthrie is staging Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in an adaptation by Chicago playwright Rebecca Gilman. We went. It’s a mildly engaging play to watch, scene by scene, but the characters are shallow, they never really develop, and in the end the pieces don’t add up to much.

The one thing everyone remembers about Ibsen’s play is that the heroine, Nora, leaves her husband—a shocking event to many audience-goers when the play was first produced in 1879. That event has become almost a commonplace, of course, yet unfortunately Gilman has failed to find any contemporary turn of events to generate the same effect. In fact, through most of the play the heroine, Nora, is portrayed as so ditzy and irresponsible that when she does decide to leave her husband, it seems like yet one more irrational lurch of a personality that’s been out of control for decades. The references to Enron, Star Trek, Flashdance, Target, and Madonna elicit chuckles from the crowd, but the overall impression I got from watching the play is that Gilman thinks people nowadays are far more superficial than they were in Ibsen’s time.

Considered in another light, the play could be taken as yet one more example of the errant notion (which has been a core tenet of “high art” for decades) that there’s something aesthetically interesting in exposing the rampant materialism of “modern culture.”

We do hear echoes here and there of the moral dilemmas that interested Ibsen. For example, Nora borrows money to pay for her husband’s rehab (a good act) but doesn’t tell her husband of its shady origins, nor of the extra ten grand she tacked on to feed her mania for interior decorating (a bad act). But the characters lack the nuance and gravity to bring these complexities home and in the end they remain dramaturgical props rather than compelling realities on stage.

All the same, it can be fun to go to the Guthrie, especially in the midst of the blinding thunderstorms that passed through the city last night. We had the pleasure of picnicking with friends before the performance in an open-air gazebo on Boom Island. (The sandwiches from Be’wiched Deli were outstanding.)

The lingering effects of the storm made themselves felt this morning, when Hilary went down to switch the laundry and found the basement floor covered with water. After she’d gone to work I got the Wetvac out, moving cardboard boxes aside, shifting old picture frames here and there, disposing of manuscripts that I turned into books years ago. Such expeditions into the heart of the basement are also expeditions into the past, of course, and there was an element of nostalgia bordering on sadness as I contemplated various hobbies that have long since gone by the wayside. Here the bright lights for the Super-8 movie camera, there the plastic containers of fabric dye for the quilts Hilary used to make. Under the stairs sits the carboy I used for making my one and only batch of red wine decades ago. And look! A box of plastic margarita glasses in the shape of saguaro cactuses. A journal of a trip to Greece, the pages now pretty well fused into a single lump. A black-and-white wash drawing of a dilapidated barn that I did as a freshman in college. A backgammon board my brother gave me years ago. A turntable, a very large box of tape cassettes, some 45s from my teen years (including the Beach Boys, the Yardbirds, the Dovells, and Doris Troy!), a squash racquet (wooden), some snowshoes (wooden), a parallelograph (look it up), and a stove-top waffle iron. And that’s to say nothing about the paint cans, the potter’s wheel, or all the books.

It’s been an interesting life. Nothing very dramatic about it, but (with all due respect) it seems far richer to me, even soaking wet, than anything I saw on the Guthrie stage last night.

Monday, June 21, 2010

June 21st

June 21st, the longest day of the year, and the basswood trees are beginning to flower. That’s among the sweetest of nature’s smells, I think, though in some years it’s much more prominent and widespread than others.

Summer has been here for three weeks at least, and Friday we were treated to a superb summer evening, courtesy of the city of St. Paul and a host of sponsors who had arranged for a few sets of top-flight jazz in Mears Park. We arrived at six armed with fold-up camp chairs and secured a table on the far side of the aisle but in full view of the stage—ideal not only for hearing the music but also for watching people move back and forth on their way to the beer vendors.

Sean Jones, voted Downbeat Magazine’s “Rising Star” in both 2006 and 2007 (I guess he just kept rising) was exchanging fours with saxophonist Brian Hogans when we arrived—a brash, exciting sound that the quintet sustained pretty well throughout a music-packed ninety-minute set that was marred only by some good-natured but long-winded introductions during which the trumpeter explained the “meaning” of numbers with names like “Love is Everywhere.”

An hour later Joe Lovano took the stage with a quintet featuring two drummers. He was in high spirits, reeling off a succession of rollicking improvisations and elaborate cadenzas that reminded me a little of Sonny Rollins in his prime, though with slightly less growl and a little more delicacy and deftness at dancing on either side of the beat. A half-moon was shining above Galtier Place, but at one point in the evening a pair of very bright white lights also came on from a rooftop in the opposite direction, giving the entire park, which had become packed with people, a carnival atmosphere. Following a succession of numbers strung together one after another with little in the way of closure on any given piece, Lovano did two lovely ballads that suited the nocturnal ambiance and further underscored the ability of the sound system to triumph over the ceaseless buzz of the crowd.

Just last week, at the Jazz Awards in Los Angeles, Lovano was chosen as best tenor saxophonist, his quintet was named best small ensemble, and he also received the record of the year award. As far as I can tell, the plaudits were well-deserved. Though his one-horn group could not deliver the same harmonic richness the Jones ensemble served up, the soloing itself was more consistently thoughtful and engaging. And in any case, when you’re sitting in a park on a warm summer evening with a river running through a birch grove off to the left, men, women and children camped out everywhere you look on their sophisticated aluminum chairs, golden lights beaming across the park from the bars and restaurants along Sixth street—on such occasions, the magic of the evening fuses everything into an unforgettably warm and lovely summer event.

As the MC was clearing the park after the performance, he remarked that Lovano would be up at the Artist’s Quarter later in the evening at a jam session. A delightful prospect—but imagine the crowds. And just how much later is later?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

One-Hour Metaphysics

(4:33 p.m.)It’s been one of those days when projects are on hold for one reason or another. Waiting for proofs, waiting for a blurb…waiting for a job. Having biked down to Majors and Quinn to pick up the latest issue of RainTaxi, I attempt to plow through Siri Hustveld’s essay “Yonder,” but have trouble keeping my interest up. Opening Marilynne Robinson’s little volume, Absence of Mind, I find myself once again in the midst of the science-religion “debate.” Robinson is a smart woman (I had an interesting chat with her once about Calvin) and early on in the introduction she notes that general understanding of the matters under review has never really recovered from the decline that metaphysics suffered during the nineteenth century. This is true, up to a point, though metaphysics did not really decline at that time. Some of our greatest metaphysicians were active during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s rather that metaphysics became harder to grasp and easier to dismiss as empty wordplay in light of the very concrete (and also quasi-metaphysical) discoveries being made by scientists in many fields.

Having read these remarks, my first impulse was to leap from my chair and set off on that long-delayed task of producing a concise metaphysics that would be intelligible to everyone. Can I do it in an hour? We’ll see.

The first step would be to clarify what metaphysics is. Maurice Blondel defined it brilliantly and succinctly: metaphysics is the logic of action. It might be helpful, expanding that definition slightly, (but at the risk of undermining its truth) to say that metaphysics is that process by which the structure and logic of experience is exposed and illuminated. (Experience is not, perhaps, the same thing as action. Then again, maybe it is. A matter to be resolved somewhere down the road.) In any case, this process of exposing and illuminating is done not through controlled experiment, but through the analysis of personal experience. It’s a thought process.

The first principle uncovered by such analysis is this: Life has an inside and an outside. We notice this because we find ourselves “inside” pondering what the world is like “outside.”

Two points follow. Metaphysics concerns itself with Life. Not with “the World” nor with “the Universe” but with Life. Yes, the world is “out there”; the universe is “out there.” But we can only engage in metaphysical inquiry “in here” because we are alive, and find ourselves in the midst of Life, which is not only “out there” but also “in here.” Finding ourselves in such a state, we begin to wonder what we ought to do. Thus, metaphysical inquiry is directed toward the solution of not one, but two, questions:
1) What is Life like?
2) What should I do next?

These two questions impinge upon and spur one another. The key word here is “should.” After all, metaphysics is not a parlor game. It’s not an idle exercise in formal logic. It’s a quest inspired by the vague desire to make our lives meaningful. It’s a quest inspired by that thing we call conscience.

It’s a strange situation to be in. We feel we ought to be doing something, but we’re not sure what that “something” is. That’s conscience.

It may be argued that some people don’t have a conscience. That’s true, but it isn’t relevant. (Metaphysics isn’t for everyone.) We call such people sociopaths. Their answers to metaphysical questions (if they have any) don’t impress us much. They tend to fall into the categories of “I got mine,” and “Do unto others, before they do it to you.” Such views don’t answer the questions of conscience.

Conscience is spurred by transgression and betrayal—we let someone down, we done someone wrong. But it’s also spurred by the desire to impress upon the world the image of “right” living we sometime feel—an image of the sanctity of existence.

I’m afraid we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. That feeling, of the sanctity of existence, is but one manifestation of a more widespread phenomenon that encompasses an array of responses to the world “out there.” Philosophers have troubled themselves for centuries about the accuracy or “truth” of their impressions, while too often overlooking the valences of their impressions. That is to say, in many case our experiences are accompanied by a sense of like or dislike, attraction or repulsion, love or hate.

This is a new metaphysical principle of enormous importance—the principle of value. That “principle” is based on the experience that bridges the chasm between “in here” and “out there.” Yes, we have affinities with other entities. Some of them are staggering. Mother and child. Love at first sight. Reims Cathedral. A moonless night under the stars on the snow-covered ice at West Bearskin Lake in the dead of winter. Pasta with porcini mushrooms and bacon. This is all metaphysical stuff. (6:37 p.m.)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Nisswa Stammen

Nisswa is a little town ten minutes north of Brainerd, nestled in the midst of a galaxy of lakes, most of which are rimmed by second homes and cabins. A decade ago it began to host an annual Scandinavian music festival on the grounds of its pioneer village, a grassy sward dotted with old log cabins and towering pines. It may be the best entertainment value in the state. A ten dollar admission fee gets you seven hours of music, performed outdoors, with artists hailing from Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway as well as places closer to home. A core of enthusiasts had arrived from various Twin Cities ethnic societies, many of them in costume. Another, and perhaps larger, contingent, is made up of locals who drop by the hear the music. Everyone seems to be lugging Hardanger fiddles and nyckelharpa this way and that. Those with a hand free are likely to be holding Swedish meatballs on a stick or little bowls of potato-dill soup.

We showed up on a lark and were tremendously impressed with the congenial setting and the first-rate music. We took a few dancing lessons in one of the cabins but never did seem to get that twirl worked out.

Among the performers, the Danish trio Faerd was outstanding, performing songs from the Faroe Islands among other places. The Norwegian trio Geitungen seemed to be composed of teenagers, but they knew their chops. And the winsome Finnish duo The Polka Chicks covered a wide range of songs with guitar, fiddle, and accordion accompaniment. A Swedish folksinger and a Nyckelharpa orchestra were also in the mix. You could wander from stage to stage, taking in the sounds, in a gentle drizzle that did little to dampen the general enthusiasm.

We returned to our motel in Brainerd just in time to see the replays from the US-England World Cup game, then returned to Nisswa for the smorgasbord dinner at the community center, after which we wandered a block up the street to the dance being held at the VFW.

Come next year, we’ll have mastered that twirl.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A European Weekend

I suppose many Americans, when they think about the region at all, see Continental Europe as an impotent, class-ridden, and corrupt civilization that the United States escaped from, quickly surpassed, and now defends, albeit rather reluctantly. To others, it represents a way of life we can only aspire to, where the food and wine are good, the vacations are long, the social safety net secure, and the savoir vivre unparalleled. Both visions are simple-minded…and both harbor an element of truth.

What cannot be denied is that as Europe has become more Americanized, America has become more Europeanized. When I returned from my first visit to France in 1978, there was only one place in Minneapolis that I knew of—the New French CafĂ©—where you could get an espresso. Now there are more than a hundred. And as McDonald’s conquered Europe, Panera sprang up in the United States as a franchise version of the corner bakery and bistro combined. Nowadays great bread can be found at many local bakeries and farmer's markets. Serrano ham is still a rarity, but a number of local bars will be broadcasting the upcoming World Cup—and advertising the fact, as if their customers were interested. The slow food movement, the local food movement, competitive bicycling, fresh pasta, gypsy-accordion bands, Bastille Day celebrations. Things have changed.

The weekend found me firmly settled into European mode, without even thinking much about it. Friday night downtown on the rooftop at Solera with friends (who had a coupon) eating gazpacho, short-ribs, shrimp croquettes, and patatas bravas. The only blot on that excursion was when the waitress asked me, “Are you folks from out of town?” I should have said, “Yeah, we’re from Clermont-Ferrand.”

Saturday morning it was the women’s finals of the French Open, live from Paris, and it was faintly thrilling to see Francesca Schiavoni conquer her nerves and play a commanding second-set tie-breaker against Aussie Samantha Stosur, growing more confident and daring with every point. She looked less like a seasoned pro than like a little girl whose dream is coming true. At twenty-nine, Schiavone is nearing the end of her career and has never come anywhere near a Grands Slam final before.

"I was feeling much more energy and more and more and more," she said. "I couldn't stop it. I felt it was my moment. I took it."

That energy and enthusiasm was readily apparent on the TV screen; it was the kind of sports moment—vaguely irrelevant but pure and beautiful—that one doesn’t easily forget. Schiavone became the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam in the open era. She had been a source of several remarkable quips earlier in the week that bear repeating. After defeating Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark in the quarterfinals, she was asked to describe how she felt right when the match ended, and Schiavone replied in English, “In that moment, you remember many things from when you were young. Is special, because is your space, is your time, is your opportunity. I felt alone, but with all the love around me....It’s like if I ask you, ‘How did you feel when you married?’ You say, ‘It’s not easy to explain.’”

Can you imagine Kobe Bryant saying that?

After her triumph in the finals, Schiavone was asked what her plans were, and she remarked, "I want to go home to Mommy and Daddy, This is my goal for the moment. Usually we do good dinner or good lunch, 10 people, usually. Now I think I have to buy a new house, bigger, for 50 people."

The London Daily News termed the match “the worst ever” but to me it seemed quite charming. Even the loser, Stosur, remarked, “I guess you want the full fairytale, but it didn't quite happen.”

The men’s final pitted Raphael Nadal (Spaniard and all-around nice guy) against the only man who’d ever beaten him at the French Open, the brooding Swede Robin Soderling. It was a fun match to watch, because it was fairly close right up to the end, though Nadal was playing at the top of his game while Soderling grew increasingly tired and clumsy in his footing, spraying shots a foot wide or long with increasing frequency as the match progressed.

Meanwhile, I'd gone to the farmer’s market in the rain to pick up the fixings for a gazpacho, Andalusian style—smooth, rather than chunky—hoping to match the soup we'd eaten at Solera. I also cooked up a tortilla Espanol, which is basically a potato cake with eggs and a few shallots added that you flip back and forth by catching it with a big plate and sliding it back into the pan. When the tortilla was ready we opened a bottle of La Cala Vermentino de Sardegna and sat down to celebrate the Spanish and Italian victories, and the further Europeanization of Golden Valley.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Literary Elite

A few days ago, in an Op Ed piece, Garrison Keillor offered up yet one more lament for the demise of the publishing industry, in an age when kids communicate through Facebook and blogs, and can publish their own books relatively cheaply and sell them on Amazon. Never more, he fretted, will publishers and editors nurture relationships with budding authors, eventually ushering the best of them into the pantheon of literary greats. Garrison holds great writers in awe (he says) and began his piece with a description of a party he went to in Manhattan where many “names” were present. Such literary elites will soon be a thing of the past, he remarks, “And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.”

These remarks merely go to show that Keillor is nostalgic by nature, which everyone knew already, and (somewhat more surprising, perhaps) that he knows nothing about the publishing industry, which is larger than the music or the film industry and grew by a healthy 7% last year while many other industries were gasping for air. It also seems to suggest that he knows nothing about youth culture, which has its own heroes and demigods among the vampire romance-writers and graphic novelists.

Keillor can be forgiven his curmudgeony screed, I guess; it’s obvious he cares about books and reveres those who’ve written them well. But imagine how much more interesting it would have been for him to relate a few of the things he picked up in conversation with the Olympians. (He mentions spotting Scott Turow, David Remnick, Erica Jong, Jeffrey Toobin, and Judy Blume in the crowd.)

Do successful writers say interesting things? I’ll bet they do. But not necessarily to fans, who are likely to approach them with starry eyes and expect them, in a few snatches of conversation, to “live up to” the remarkable worlds they’ve created on paper at such great effort. More often, successful authors say interesting things to other successful authors whom they’ve already gotten to know at other parties.

I’ve had interesting conversations with a few famous writers—James Salter and Robert Bly come to mind—conversations that were conversations and added dimension to my understanding of them. On the other hand, I ran into Evan S. Connell in the plaza in Santa Fe one morning at dawn, and though he was polite, he seemed very eager to be off; at the time he was hard at work on Deus Lo Volt!, or so he told me. He signed a postcard that I happened to have with me, and when I went into the lobby of La Fonda to get another one, I said, “Hey! I just ran into Evan S. Connell in the plaza.” The old lady behind the counter replied, in a purring voice, “He comes in here often. Isn’t he a nice man.”