Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why Does the World Exist?

That’s the question posed by Jim Holt in his new book by that title. He goes around interviewing physicists and metaphysicians, and lots of nonsense gets scattered here and there, along with some intriguing insights and speculations. 

However, Why questions are seldom worth asking (as my dad always said). We’d be better off asking, “What is the world?” Or better still, “Why do I exist?”

“Why” questions are really concerned with one of two things. They’re concerned with motivation or with explication, and the former can usually be transformed to the later without much difficulty. I might ask someone, “Why did you put that CD by the Cocteau Twins on the stereo just now?” Was it simply to irritate me? Perhaps not. Perhaps you actually like this stuff. If so, then the question becomes, “What do you hear? What draws you to this sound?” I hear the music, but evidently I’m not really hearing it. What is really going on here?

To suggest that the question Why Does the World Exist? is a hunt for motives would be to suggest that someone made the world and we want to know why he or she did so. It carries obvious theological overtones. 

In fact, when this question arises, it’s usually simply a way of expressing the dumfounding realization that there is no real reason for all this stuff we see and engage and live through. There is no motive behind it. There might just as easily have been nothing as something.

Such thoughts tickle the fancy of some. In others they strike a note of unspeakable terror. Yet others at least occasionally become rapt in awe at the situation they find themselves in—alive amidst an inexplicable universe. I would put myself in the last category.

It seems to me that most religious sentiment arises as a very imperfect means to express the marvel of existence, both personal and cosmic. Yet in so far as such sentiments become encoded in holy books and liturgical texts, they tend to take on a mindless rhetorical quality. They lose their luster.

Does the fact that the universe exists prove that God exists? I think that argument could be made convincingly, though many of the voices in Jim Holt’s book would, I suspect, reject such an inference. It would probably be closer to the truth to say that God is the universe than merely to say that he or she made the universe. But in the end, the argument is less important than the feeling underlying it. It’s a love feeling—me and the universe—and the challenge lies in expanding and extending it before it fades of its own accord or becomes institutionalized and loses its luster.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Leaf Hills

Remark overheard at the Traveler’s CafĂ© in Alexandria, Minnesota, two days after Thanksgiving:”We didn’t do any shopping. We stayed home all day yesterday and watched movies.”

We, too, avoided the malls on Black Friday, a day that would seem less black if it weren’t so heavily advertised. Inspired by an email ad from the Country Inn motel chain, we booked a room in Alexandria, hopped in the car, and headed northwest toward the Leaf Hills. This little-known (and easy to overlook) geographic feature consists of a range of hills running in an arc from Detroit Lakes to Sibley State Park north of Willmar—a stretch of more than a hundred miles. It’s also referred to as the Alexandria Moraine.

The name of this range of hills is a rough translation of an Ojibwe word for the region, Gaaskibag-wajiwan, which means something on the order of “Rustling Leaf Mountains.”

The Leaf  Hills, on the left, in red
We didn’t hear much rustling ourselves—most of the leaves have long since fallen. But we made an interesting day of it all the same. Though the sun was bright the temperature continued to drop throughout the day and the wind was bitter, blowing around the buildings in downtown St. Cloud. We got a taste of Black Friday as we stepped into Herbergers to find a bathroom—families were rushing this way and that, clutching down comforters and bright pink iPad covers. We spent a few minutes in the used bookstore across the street and wandered into a coffee-shop on another corner that turned out to be a bank. I believe the saleswoman was truly shocked when I told her we got 2.5 percent interest on our checking account.
“I think you mean .25 percent.”

“No, 2.5 percent.”

Well, no free coffee for us.

Our one purchase of the morning was in the ’Lectric Fetus, where I nabbed a 2-CD set of a Stan Getz Quartet live performance, circa 1981, for $3.25. As we continued northwest along the freeway to Sauk Centre we listened to inspired (yet mellow) interpretations of  “My Old Flame,” “Easy Living,” and “Sweet Lorraine.”

At Sauk Centre we left the freeway, heading north and west to Lake Osakis and on to Lake Carlos State Park, just north of Alexandria. The blanket of gray clouds had caught up with us by that time. We spotted five swans cruising majestically on the lake just as we arrived at the park entrance. The park itself was deserted.

A Few Muskrats on the Ice
Ice had formed on the west side of the lake, and the drifting snow was collecting at the base of the reeds near shore. We watched five muskrats eat their Thanksgiving dinner on the ice—the young’ens clearly smaller and lighter in color than their parents. But it was only after we left the park heading north and west that the countryside became hilly.   

This part of Minnesota is dotted with lakes, but they’re often surrounded by farms, which undercuts the “woodsy” feel to some degree. The farms themselves are often attractive, and the dusting of snow in the furrows made them more so. The sun broke through the clouds again as we proceeded north on Douglas County 8 north of Leaf Valley, and the distant farms to the west looked spectacular in the glinting brightness. We pulled over at one point to study a large flock of birds flitting through the bushes near the road. Snow buntings? Horned larks? No, they were redpolls!

The hike through the woods to the top of Inspiration Peak, which rises 400 feet above the surrounding countryside, was easier than I remembered it, and the view from the top was better, no doubt because we could see more, now that the aspens have lost their leaves. Gray hills and lakes spread away to the horizon in every direction, with the green-white trunks of aspen and tiny daubs of red sumac berries brightening the scene.

Sinclair Lewis is responsible for giving the hill its current name. The Ojibwe, who also recognized its prominence amid the surrounding countryside, called it Gaaskibag-wajiw, which I would imagine means “Rustling Leaf Mountain.”

Our return to Alexandria took us past some very fine country—the heart of the Leaf Hills, as it were—past Lake Christina, through Evansville, and down into flat country again alongside the railroad tracks. It was dark by the time we got back to town.

The next morning we headed out to the farmsite where, in 1898,  Olaf Ohman allegedly unearthed the Kensington Runestone. I’m a believer myself, though I’m not an expert in medieval runic symbols. I can’t go into the details of the controversy here, though I think at the very least Mr. Ohman, an immigrant from Sweden, ought to be given credit for devising a runic artifact that included a number of symbols that the scholars in Scandinavia had never seen before—though they were later found to be current during the fourteenth century. That’s quite a trick.

In any case, the park is a lovely place; the farmhouse still stands, there are trails through the woods, and for what it’s worth, the first jail and  railroad depot building from nearby Kensington have also been moved to the site.

From there it was on to Starbuck, Glacial Lakes State Park, Terrance Mill, and Ordway Prairie—all situated in the midst of sandy, rolling hills that were fun to wander through. We followed the signs for Glacial Ridge Trail down some fairly obscure gravel roads before finally jumping onto Highway 55 and drifting back to town.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Ian Frazier, Sherman Alexie, Geoff Dyer

In the aftermath of the announcement Wednesday that two writers who call Minneapolis home had won National Book Awards—that’s half the total—local journalists were eager to riff on the vibrancy of the local literary scene. And with good reason. There always seems to be something going on hereabouts in the line of readings, tweet-ups, and other arts-related events, sponsored by various local alliances, bookstores, and publications. Of course, the correlation itself is a little shaky; Louise Erdrich didn’t learn to write as well as she does by going to literary events. All the same, Twin Citians can be thankful for a seemingly endless stream of opportunities to listen to, and rub shoulders with, literary and cultural luminaries—both visitors and home-grown talent.

My thoughts were drifting in this direction on Sunday afternoon, a few days before the awards were announced, as I sat in a plastic folding chair and watched Garrison Keillor wander forlornly into Common Good Books (which he owns) dragging a small black carry-on bag behind him. I was among perhaps sixty people who’d gathered in an open space in the center of the store to hear Ian Frazier read from his new book, The Cursing Mommy. During his introductory comments Keillor remarked that “very funny people often don’t like to be referred to as ‘very funny’ … so I’ll say no more about that.” He went on to draw attention to Frazier’s substantial book about Siberia, which “has not yet found its audience.”

Frazier, in turn, began his intro by remarking that he spent a lot of time traveling to small towns, where he marveled again and again on how great Keillor’s influence has been on that hue of the American demographic spectrum. “These people know they like living in small towns, but Garrision has made it possible for them to actually be proud of that fact.”

Once he got into the reading, Frazier was very funny indeed, bringing to life the personality of the cursing mommy in ways the printed word can only hint at. During the question-and-answer period, he talked a lot about growing up in Ohio, and characterized his latest literary creation as “a cross between Sylvia Plath and Phyllis Diller.”

It snowed during the night, and the next morning Hilary and I headed up to Maple Grove to see the new nature center at Elm Creek Regional Park. That’s another outstanding municipal amenity we Twin Citians have long appreciated—all the green and wild open spaces.The new nature center proved to be very fine and airy, adding some sparkle to a creek-bed that can sometimes seem a little dour and skanky.

Snow on the ground affects your mood in subtle ways; it tends to make you more withdrawn, and more poetic. Maybe you end up reading more? In her Star-Tribune interview, Erdrich remarked, "People elsewhere think that it's cold and desolate around these parts, but that cold is good for literacy and reading and culture."

Inspired by the Frazier reading, we went downtown that evening  to hear Sherman Alexie speak at Plymouth Congregational Church. The church sponsors a fine “literary witnesses” program, and Alexie drew such a large crowd they had to set up chairs in another part of the building to manage the overflow. The disparity between the Frazier crowd and the Alexie crowd seemed a little odd to me. Then again, aside from being a literary and a nature capital, Minneapolis is also considered the urban capital of America’s Native American population.

Alexie himself, who’s from Spokane, WA, admitted as much, and to underscore the point he added, “I think every Indian in America has gotten laid in Minneapolis at one time or another.”

Such was Alexie’s monologue—raw, funny, antagonistic and affectionate by turns, droll, insightful, intense. Once again, the human voice and personality took us beyond anything to be found on the printed page. His comic timing was superb, his improvisational genius remarkable. He delivered an extemporaneous monologue about house fires (he’s been in three or four) and Claude Van Damme movies that deserves a place in the Library of Congress.  At the root of it all there was clearly a troubled soul who’s learned to modulate and temper his emotions, though he's no where near finished working through them.

It occurred to me later than Alexie has a lot in common with Richard Pryor. (And if you haven’t seen Richard Pryor Live, you should. Might as well see Smoke Signals again, too, while you’re at it.)

Two days later we drove across town to my home town, Mahtomedi, to see the premier of The Girl from Birch Creek, a documentary about Minnesota Supreme Court justice Rosalie Wahl. Her son Tim has been a very good friend of mine for a third of a century at least, and I’ve known Rosalie as a mom and friend for just as long. The film brought out aspects of her early life in Kansas that I’d never heard before, and though its one-hour length made it difficult to touch on every aspect of her background and character, what did shine through was her simple decency, commitment to helping others, and dedication to fairness…and also Rosalie’s poetic streak. It isn’t often that you get to hear a Supreme Court justice sing a hymn a capella or recite a poem she’s written.

Thursday was Jazz-and-Pie Night. For several years we’ve been gathering once a month in Edina at the condo of Hilary’s parents, Gene and Dorothy, to listen to cuts from our favorite jazz albums. Everyone brings a few tracks and gives a little speech about why they brought a particular number before putting it on; then we sit quietly and listen, interjecting an appreciative comment from time to time about the drummer, perhaps, or the tone of the reedman who’s currently at the mike.

Gene often brings Big Band numbers or jazz vocals, Hilary’s brother Paul is a fan of Happy Apple, Keith Jarrett, and Brad Mehldau, and brother Jeff has made an effort to introduce us to young Turks such as Gerald Clayton and William Smith III, though his selections range from Weather Report to the Wailin’ Jennies. Yet each gathering produces quite a few surprises, and an added source of amusement is the habit we’ve gotten into of trying to devise a line of reasoning connecting the track previously played with the one we’re about to put on.

Thursday’s playlist was a little skewed by the fact that Jeff couldn’t make it and the CDs Paul brought wouldn’t play because he’d burned them just that day and used the wrong pen to write the names on them; the lettering had somehow bled through to the other side. All the same, we ran through a very interesting “set” that included several numbers by songstress Anita O’Day; a live performance by Sonny Rollins of  "You Are Too Beautiful"; the Maria Schneider Orchestra (coming to town soon) doing “Over the Rainbow”; a 1955 rendition of “Out of Nowhere” by Coleman Hawkins; Gerry Mulligan coursing through "Bippity, Boppity"; Paul Desmond and Jim Hall performing “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”; and Cannonball Adderley loping through a sweet version of one of my favorite songs, “I Can’t Get Started (with You).”

Then we all went into the kitchen to sample Dorothy’s pumpkin pie.

Culture Week was brought to a fitting conclusion last night at the downtown Minneapolis Library where Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae interviewed English essayist (and novelist) Geoff Dyer, author most recently of a collection titled Otherwise Known as the Human Condition.

Before the show we indulged in a plate of sashimi and some Happy Hour tempura at Origami, an intimate restaurant nestled in the bosom of the Federal Reserve Building a few blocks from the library. We arrived at the event—a fantastic building at night—and secured two seats in the mid-sized auditorium before rounding off our meal with a napkin-full of complimentary cookies from the table outside.

At that point I noticed that a party was underway down the hall, and in the best Dyeresque gate-crashing spirit we went down to see what we could see. As I had suspected, it was a pre-reading soiree sponsored by Graywolf Press. There was Geoff, of course, assuming a conversational pose in front of the water cooler just beyond the string duo as he listened to one of the Graywolf guests expound a theory of seemingly elaborate proportions.  We got no further into the room, and hadn’t intended to.

The conversation in the auditorium was top-flight. Geoff read one essay (in which he ends up comparing the world of haute couture to Amazonian fertility rites) but mostly talked about his approach to writing an essay, how America differs from England, and how he chooses his themes—or how they choose him. There were few surprises but plenty of well-fashioned sentences and off-the-cuff humor.

I started off the Q & A myself, remarking that I’d enjoyed his essay on W.S. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard. I went on to say that after reading it, I began to notice that Dyer himself sometimes uses the circular, repetitive, Bernhard style. “Do you actually like Bernhard? Do you consider him an influence?”

Dyer paused for a second, then replied sheepishly, “Guilty as charged.” He extolled Bernhard’s work, referred to the famous blurb about its affinities with Broch and Musil, and admitted that the opening passages of his book on D.H. Lawrence had been directly inspired by Bernhard’s novel Concrete

This strikes me as interesting because Dyer and Bernhard are temperamentally quite dissimilar. Bernhard is the ultimate crank, and no one will enjoy reading his work who fails to see that his extreme misanthropy is supposed to be funny—though he’s being perfectly serious, too. Dyer, on the other hand, though also quite serious most of the time, in the end just wants to have fun. And share that fun with us.

Maybe it all boils down to the same thing in the end. But the cool thing about literature is that it isn’t a process of boiling down, so much as it’s a process of building up. Regional culture, too.