Friday, December 19, 2014

Computer Love Song

They say that losing a spouse through death or divorce, getting fired, and moving, are the most stressful things we commonly live through. 

Not far down the list, I think, is losing a computer.

It isn't that we loved our computer so much. But so much of our selves is invested in it, sustained and remembered by it, that getting a new one is hardly a satisfactory solution—though it may be the beginning of a solution.

And to make matters worse, we don't really know how the darn things work.

I don't, anyway.

It's like the human body. Muscles, bones, oxygen and blood running around every which way. We rely on it, but who really knows what's going on in there?

I can remember all of my computers, from the IBM-XT that drove my huge daisy wheel printer, back in the 1980s, to the Macintosh Performa that crashed, to the Gateway (Windows Millennium) with 32 gigs of disc that was so easy to buy on-line.

Then there was the Compaq Presario with the boxy screen and 250 gigs of disc that I bought used from my brother-in-law Paul for $300. I was moving up.

That machine was doing fine, though nine tenths of the memory was gone, until just recently, when it got finicky about  turning on. It's disturbing when you push the button ... and nothing happens.

Maybe it's the switch (I thought). Or maybe there's some storage battery inside that's wearing out. The machine was using the XP operating system, which was becoming  a little risky in itself.

Meanwhile, my InDesign program was taking five minutes to appear on the screen. Once it showed up, it was usually fine. But I knew the time had come to move on.

I don't like to buy new things, especially when the thing I have still works. I'm "uncomfortable" with change, to adopt that ever-so-cautious post-modern phraseology. But after some cursory research at Best Buy and MicroCenter and a few emails to my friend Tim (who's a computer expert, among many other things) to get some advice about graphics cards and RAM, I pushed the button indicating the purchase of a Windows 7 machine with a huge screen and a terabyte of disc from CostCo.

So my two machines were sitting side by side, and they both worked. (I didn't turn off the Compaq for weeks.) I moved most of the files from one to the other using a terabyte external drive. But what about the program files?

Now the hard part begins. First of all, I've got the get some virus security on my new machine but don't want to drop it on the old machine. I finally arrange a "network" deal at no additional cost to me, thanks to some customer service rep who genuinely sees the situation.

I reload the Adobe Creative Suite using the discs I've saved in the basement. Then learn from Rashmi (my on-line chat interlocutor in India) that the discs won't work. I must download from the website. But he fails to mention that the serial number I bought and paid for and preserved so carefully no longer works either.

Further "chat" a few hours later  reveals that there's a generic number no one told me about.

All of this is complicated by the fact that a while back I upgraded the InDesign program (part of the suite) to 5.5 without upgrading the rest of the suite—which you're not really supposed to do. But we won't get into messy details. My Creative Suite is finally in place. (Though I downloaded some parts of it to the wrong folder. Oops!)

But not so fast. The InDesign program seems to be missing a lot of the fonts it used to have! I should have known that I'd have to reinstall the ones I bought—including my trusty Sabon, Bembo, and Trend—and the free novelty fonts I've downloaded over the years for a specific purpose, including Babelfish, Croomby, Woodplank, Alien Ornaments, Litterbox, Fabulous Fifties, and Jokerman. But what happened to Giovanni Book and Jenson Pro?

So I went back into the old machine and somehow downloaded most of the fonts I was missing onto a flash drive. Two hundred in all. Then installed them en masse on the new machine.

By this time days had past, and I was getting frazzled. I could hardly bear to think what I'd forgotten about or what might happen next, and was incapable of doing any real work. Then I got to thinking about my WinZip software? And my barcode creator from SNX? (Out of business, I'm afraid.) And my FTP Commander, which I need  to access and modify the websites I maintain? (I always loved that name. Every time I logged into it some sort of tune would surface on the order of "Up in the air, Junior Birdman," which is from an old radio program my dad used to listen to.) 

And what about my Abby Finereader OCR software? Fortunately I'd purchased it recently enough that there were no problems re-downloading.

Then there was the driver for my Scanjet 5300c flatbed scanner. I don't even know what a driver is! After a good deal of on-line research, I spotted that device on a list of items that HP no longer supports. Oh, great!  So I needed to download a driver from a third-party with the hokey name of VueScan ($40) or buy a new scanner ($200) The second option would allow me to scan some old slides from Europe. How much is that worth?

And what about the addresses in my Outlook Express 6.0? (Export as a CVS file—or whatever—transfer to a flash drive, and then upload into the new system, dummy!) And what about my cherished game programs? Bridge? Backgammon? Impulse purchases from the check-out line at Office Max long ago. Those CDs must be lying around somewhere.

The new computer doesn't even come with a free cell program.

Perhaps the Dreamweaver XS 2004 saga is the worst. I paid real money for this program, which I use to make web pages. It works. But when I re-installed using the CD it wouldn't accept the legitimate registration number that I miraculously saved for all these years! It recognizes it as valid (green check mark) ...but claims I'm not connected to the internet!

Yes, I know. Adobe bought Dreamweaver a long time ago. And my version is too old. Adobe reps have no advice to give me except to consult the chat forums. If worse comes to worst, I guess I could download a copy of GoLive using the generic serial number they gave me?

For now, I'm watching the trial use date on Dreamweaver drop, day by day. I've got 14 days left. The question is this: If it's too dumb to accept my registration number, after all these years,  is it also too dumb to cut me off when my time is up?

We'll see. If it does, I suppose I could just re-install it using the disc. But once every thirty days? That would get old.

I know what you're going to say. "Your programs are old, you cheapskate. By some new ones."

Trouble is, the old programs work fine, and the new ones have all sorts of unnecessary "enhancements." Besides, the programs I've mentioned here would triple the cost of the new system. 

Then there are those who would say, "Hire a professional to do all that." But it should be obvious that I'd have to tell him my life story before he got everything right.  

About a week ago, I plugged an external hard drive into the old machine to extract a few folders I'd missed the first time and it bombed off again—with a little pop. It's never come on since.

I still push the on-off button every morning, but nothing happens.

Since then I've removed the keyboard from the desk, and I hauled the screen to the basement a few days later. The tower is still there at my feet; there's a pale green light blinking in the back, as if it's in a coma. And the memory lingers on...

Someone at Micro-center told me yesterday that I could remove the hard drive from the tower  physically and attach it via a special cable to the new machine to use  as a separate drive. "It's not a big deal," he said. "It's on the left, just remove a few screws."

I have my doubts. The cable was $15, but I didn't buy it. Maybe I'll try that some day.

Here are the silver linings. The new computer is darned fast! Microsoft supports it (for now). And the screen, as I mentioned, is huge—I'm getting a sore neck just looking at it. (The last screen looked huge, too, when I got it.)

The screen-saver allows me to set up a succession of rotating images, which I could never do on the Windows XP—or didn't know how to.

Right now I'm looking at a close-up of a white cleome from the summer garden.

I like it. I'm seeing things I never saw before. It's quite remarkable.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

John Berryman at 100

The University of Minnesota hosted a three-day event celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the poet John Berryman’s birth. Hurray!

I signed up for the first afternoon’s talks, but when I actually saw the schedule, my enthusiasm withered. Rather than asking themselves how Berryman’s work relates to life, the presenters were asking themselves how it relates to T. S. Eliot’s work and the plays of Shakespeare. Those who attended on the weekend were blessed with analyses of how Berryman’s poetry related to the poetry of Hart Crane and Ezra Pound. The lecture on Berryman’s unorthodox use of pronouns might have been the best of the lot. (I was out of town, alas!)

It's too bad, I think, that no one considered delivering a paper on the subject of Berryman’s connections to the evangelist St. Paul. Berryman taught at the U of M for many years, but as I recall (I should look it up) he was in the Humanities Department, not the English Department, and the course he taught was on the letters of Paul.

I didn’t take that class, but I heard Berryman speak in the men’s lounge on the second floor of Coffman Union a few times. By that time he’d won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, and I was surprised that only eight or ten people showed up for these free afternoon lectures.

Berryman slurred his words quite a bit at those events. I was naïve; I thought he had a speech impediment.

Two of the things he said in the course of those talks have stayed with me. 1) You should never ask a rhetorical question in a poem; 2) Wallace Stevens liked the color blue.

I also remember two remarks Berryman made during a drunken interview in Ireland with the BBC. At one point he confessed: “I didn’t want to be like Yeats. I wanted to be Yeats.”  And when questioned by the interviewer about his recent awards and celebrity, he responded: “I have twelve readers.” And he began to name them.

My favorite Dream Song in those days—perhaps every adolescent’s favorite—begins

Life is boring. We must not say so…

 My life wasn’t boring, but it was amusing to hear an adult admit as much. Another of my favorites began

Horrible Henry Huffed      the day
Unappeasable Henry sulked.

I wasn’t aware, or more likely had forgotten until I picked up the book again this morning, that these are the lines with which The Dream Songs open.

Much of the pleasure in reading Berryman’s poems comes from the effort required to make the rhythms fit the lines. More than most other poets, he sounds like someone declaiming to an audience, or at the very least, trying to work up muttered interior monologues into something orderly and substantial. There’s something almost Byronic about it all. Word inversions and the substitution of non-words for common ones help mask the banality of much of the subject matter. There are half-rhymes and fractured syntax, missing words and dropped word endings, but such effects and affectations soon grow tiresome, at least to me.

It may be that if you immersed yourself in The Dream Songs, reading them all at one sitting, out loud—you could do it in a few hours, I’ll bet—you’d burst through their melodramatic theatricality and self-loathing to latch more firmly onto Berryman’s unceasing interior struggle to make the music (and the humor) in the words somehow ennoble a life that’s out of control.

But right now, I can think of better ways to spend my time. For example, I’d prefer to reread Berryman’s subsequent book, Love & Fame. It’s true that many of these poems might just as well have been strung out into paragraphs. Well, there’s nothing wrong with a little prose now and then. Is there?

Back in college, what stuck with me especially was the section titled “Eleven Addresses to the Lord.” Something about a blue chair stuck in my mind.

So I went down to the basement and located the Berryman books. A slight scent of mold arose when I opened Love & Fame and began to read. The first address is so good I’m tempted to repeat it in full. It goes like this:

Master of beauty, craftsman of the snowflake, 
inimitable contriver,
endower of Earth so gorgeous & different from the boring Moon, 
thank  you for such as it is my gift.

I have made up a morning prayer to you 
containing with precision everything that most matters. 
“According to Thy will” the thing begins.
It took me off & on two days. It does not aim at eloquence.

You have come to my rescue again & again 
in my impassable, sometimes despairing years.
You have allowed my brilliant friends to destroy 
and I am still here, severely damaged, but functioning.

Unknowable, as I am unknown to my guinea pigs: 
how can I ‘love’ you?
I only as far as gratitude & awe 
confidently & absolutely go.

I have no idea whether we live again.
It doesn’t seem likely
from either the scientific or the philosophical point of view 
but certainly all things are possible to you,

and I believe as fixedly in the Resurrection-appearances to Peter & to Paul
as I believe I sit in this blue chair.
Only that may have been a special case 
to establish their initiatory faith.

Whatever your end may be, accept my amazement.
May I stand until death forever at attention 
for any your least instruction or enlightenment.
I even feel sure you will assist me again, Master of insight & beauty.

In these lines we hear vestiges of Berryman’s characteristic attempts to be honest (who else would refer to God as an “inimitable contriver” or to “the boring Moon”), and to be humorous (“as unknowable as I am to my guinea pigs”).

We also hear his penchant for archaic word order (“I only as far as gratitude & awe confidently & absolutely go”). Yet the sentiments seem less desparate and distracted, more humble and sincere, than the ones we too often find in The Dream Songs; as if an exhausted spirit, once hungry for love and fame, had finally said to itself, “What’s really going on here, beyond the confinements of my literary antecedents and ambitions?”

Am I suggesting that the only good poet is a Christian poet? Of course not. What I am trying to suggest is that poetry is a defense and a celebration of experience. Once you’ve analyzed the literary origins and influences, the psychological causes and the linguistic techniques, you’ve still got to establish whether the writer in question has anything of enduring importance to say to us.    

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Birdman - the Movie

An edgy film about the theater. An arty film about art. Imaginative. Almost Godardesque.  The opening credits could have been copied from Pierrot le Fou. Maybe they were?

A soundtrack that's mostly played on a trap set? The Sound of Music this ain't.  Long takes with handheld cameras in confined spaces, difficult to get your bearings. Who are we rooting for, here?

Doesn't it remind you a little bit of Arthur Penn's Mickey One

Michael Keaton, serious actor turned Hollywood superhero, now finds himself on the tail-end of celebrity and wants to reestablish his artistic integrity on the Broadway stage. The fact that he not only wrote and stars in the play, but is also producing and directing it, lends an aura of willed self-importance to the enterprise that could easily be taken for delusions of grandeur. (Think—Steve McQueen doing Enemy of the People.)  

Keaton is naturally fraught with anxiety and anger as opening night approaches, and the fact that he can levitate himself four feet off the ground while he meditates doesn't help him much. Yes, suspension of disbelief starts with the opening scene. Which is good.

But the meat of the film, which might almost have been a play, consists of a small group of talented performers interacting in a heated environment of ego and insecurity, artistry and desperation, as opening night approaches.

Zack Galifianakis, who plays Keaton's lawyer, manager, and best friend, ballasts the film with his common sense enthusiasm and trust. Emma Stone plays Keaton's mixed-up daughter, who recently got out of treatment and hangs around the dressing rooms, running errands and smoking cigarettes. 

Naomi Watts, one of two lead actresses in the play, suggests that Keaton hire her erstwhile boyfriend (Edward Norton), after Keaton fires one of the principal actors just a few days before the opening. Norton is well-known on Broadway, both for his dramatic intensity and his cocky unpredictability.

Throw in Keaton's ex-wife and the second lead actress (who announces early on in the film that she's pregnant with Keaton's child) and you have an enormous potential for tense, two- and three-way conversations and confrontations in the halls and dressing rooms backstage.

Theater-dramas tend to be amusing. They have a can't-lose narrative arc leading up to irrevocable triumph or disaster of opening night. Such works as A Chorus of Disapproval, Orson and Me, and the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows come immediately to mind. (So does Katherine Hepburn in Stage Door, though I can hardly remember it.)
One problem with Birdman is that Keaton isn't terribly likable, and it's hard to tell if he's even a very good actor. He's tormented by the voice of Birdman, the superhero he once played, who tries to convince him that no one cares about traditional theater; it's an utter waste of time. Thus the entire film simmers not only with latent violence and but also with incipient insanity—qualities that the jumpy camerawork tends to reinforce.

As the film progresses tender moments crop up more frequently, but we never really get the feeling that thing are going to be "all right." It's hard to imagine that even a resounding Broadway triumph will be enough to assuage Keaton's demons for long. 

Yet I walked out of the theater saying to myself: "Wow, that was something!" I'd been wrung through the wringer and then hung out to dry.

The film doesn't say anything new about art or life, but there's a lot of art and life in it.   

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Twenty-seven Hours on the North Shore

 During a conversation (and food) filled Thanksgiving afternoon with family and friends, several generations of women and men from three or four strands of the family discussed film production, the Ferguson protests, the history of St. Louis suburbs, Guardians of the Galaxy, breeding fish for fun and profit, Infinite Jest, the allure (or not) of Lake Michigan, kitchen remodeling, Augie's Bar in downtown Minneapolis, and the relative size of Thayer's and herring gulls.

Hilary and I returned home with enormous quantities of leftover salmon mousse, one piece of mincemeat pie, two magnums of unopened wine, and a modest foil packet of turkey and dressing.

It had all been warm and grand. But now our attention turned to an adventure lying ahead. We'd arranged to spend the following night in Two Harbors, a town three hours north of the Twin Cities that we often breeze through on our way to the BWCA or to resorts further up the North Shore. Along the way we intended to spend some time at one or two places in Duluth that we typically bypass for the same reason—not enough time.

Our first stop was the trailhead to a stretch of the Superior Hiking Trail that crosses Skyline Drive on its way inland toward Peace Ridge, high above the city of Duluth. It was a pleasant walk through the snow-dusted woods, with downy and hairy woodpeckers tapping here and there amid the poplars, and the view was likely to improve the higher we went. But after three-quarters of a mile we decided to turn around. It was already noon and we had quite a few other stops in mind.

Continuing east on Skyline Drive, we made a brief stop at Enger Park, but chose to skip the climb up the tower, preferring to enjoy the expansive view from the pavilion perched on the edge of the cliff.

After a truly mediocre lunch from Taco Johns, consumed in a parking lot behind an insurance agency in a little neighborhood called Beacon Point on the shores of the big lake that's been cut off from downtown Duluth by the freeway, we continued east for twenty minutes along the scenic route to Knife River. 

We parked just west of the river, read a sign about the ten million board feet of lumber that had been shipped out of the harbor or down the railroad tracks from Knife River, then hiked through the woods upstream to an enclosed metal fish ladder that lies just east of the expressway. The smell of pines filled the air, and wood smoke wafted across the river from a cabin on the other bank. Little pools of new-fallen snow rested on top of the dead yarrow plants. Ah, winter!

We purchased a whole smoked herring at Russ Kendell's Smokehouse for five dollars. They're building a new smokehouse behind the shop to replace the one that burned down last spring. I noticed a few half-pint containers of salmon spread selling for $6.50 a piece in one of the display cases and suddenly realized that we had a gold mine in our refrigerator back home!

In Two Harbors we bypassed our motel—light was draining from the overcast sky, no time to check in—and parked at the head of Burlington Bay on the east end of town. From there a city trail runs through a grove of white pines planted to commemorate those who died in battle since WWI,  with side trails leading to rocky outcrops along the shore.

Eventually the trail reemerges on a city street and then heads down a hill past the water treatment plant to another foot trail leading to even broader stretches of rocky shelves along the lake, cut off from the old business district by a swath of trees. I'd never seen that stretch of coastline before.

After traversing the rocks, we cut back through the woods toward the harbor, passing just below the historic lighthouse. But a greater sight lay just around the corner—an ore boat at the loading dock, strewn with little white lights.

This remarkable sight reminded me only tangentially of Christmas. What does Christ have to do with ore boats? But it did reinforce the notion that twinkling lights in the darkness are more than attractive, they're positively enchanting.  

A small group of tourists was wandering back to shore along the narrow breakwater in the shadowy light. To judge from their accents I'd guess they were from somewhere in the Carolinas. Visiting family over the holidays, no doubt.

Two common mergansers drifted aimlessly in the harbor, their white breasts gleaming against the dark water; then they dove into the murk below.

We wandered into the VFW (too smoky) and the Castle Danger Brewpub (no food) before returning to our motel to check in, sit in the hot tub, and take another look at the thin, stiff, coppery herring we'd bought in Knife River. It was moist, fresh, good.

The next morning we headed downtown again, where we read the signs about the two impressive locomotives on display, paused in front of the house where a company called Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing had been incorporated in 1902, and watched a fox prance across the road and disappear into someone's back yard through a wrought iron fence.

But we were out on the road early, heading east to another section of the Superior Hiking Trail near Crow Creek. A faint wisp of sleet was falling—enough to send me skidding past the turnoff to County Road 106.

A mile or so up the road, we found the parking lot. The trail climbs steeply up a rocky bluff, delivering a payoff within fifteen minutes. It offers a succession of views across the valley of Crow Creek toward the distant lake and the long rocky ridge through which the Silver Creek Tunnel passes. 

Almost as remarkable as the view was the sight of a man running toward us at breakneck speed down the rocky, snow-covered trail, carrying a water bottle in one hand and listening to some electronic "music" that consisted of little more than an urgent, metallic beat. As he went careering down the snowy rock steps we'd just laboriously climbed up and disappeared into the forest below, I was reminded of a herd of elk we came upon once in Yellowstone. Also descending.

The key, I guess, is not to alight firmly anywhere, but simply keep moving ahead.

For the most part, the guide we'd been using, Fifty Day Hikes on the North Shore by Andrew Slade, was more than useful—it was indispensable; but the "spur" the author recommended to reach the highest ground and most spectacular views on the Crow Creek Trail didn't look too promising to me. 

Running along the edge of a cliff and difficult to discern under an inch or two of snow, it looked less like a trail than a one-way ticket to the emergency room.

So we returned to the car and continued east to Gooseberry Park, where we hiked the Gitchi-gummi Trail on the east side of the river. Along the way I spotted a muskrat on the foamy ice covering Second Falls, searching (in vain) for a safe way to climb down to the river; and a little vole bounding through the weeds, he resurfaced twice. At another point a ruffed grouse crossed the path just a few feet in front of us, then hid out in the crux of a bush until we lost interest.

The dead grasses all around were a rich golden brown and the big lake was a steely green-gray. It wasn't that cold, we were both well-dressed, but I didn't much feel like pondering the immensity of the expanse. For some reason, things closer at hand were attracting my attention.

A single fox had been bounding along the trail in front of us for most of the way. We didn't see it, but we saw the tracks. Otherwise, the only signs we saw, aside from weasel and mouse tracks in the snow, were those of a large rabbit, bunched close together but spaced about five feet apart. It seems he was on the run from something. (But maybe he just felt like running.)

Back in Duluth, we took our final hike of the day—out through a small pine barren beyond the airport at the end of Park Point. The pines themselves date back to 1798 at least, according to the sign.

The sun had finally come out and the sky was a soft blue covered with long stripes of diaphanous pillow-like clouds. The tan beaches were rimmed with miniature drifts of snow, there were broad planes of ice under the snow cover where the waves had lapped up across the sand and then frozen. (I wouldn't have known that, but you could see the tracks of those who had ventured out toward the lake, slipped, and fallen.) The grasses on the dunes looked healthy. Off in the distance to the east I could see the lighthouse on the pier at Wisconsin Point, on the other side of the sandbar, very close but separated from us by ninety minutes of drive-time.  

We passed a bunch of people for the first time along the sandy trail through the woods—well, we were practically in downtown Duluth. It was a family group, they'd been attempting to cross-country ski, though the dearth of snow made it impossible. We came upon their skis, leaned up against a tree, before we saw them wandering in our direction down the sandy path in the shadow of the woods.

Four or five seaplanes were parked in a snow-covered lot beyond the cyclone fence protecting the airport. Eventually we crossed a stretch of private property that housed the high voltage fixtures for the airport lights, and I saw an evening grosbeak sitting on the metal fence enclosing the electrical boxes. That was a treat.

Evening grosbeaks usually travel in flocks, I said to myself. But as the bird flew off he was joined in flight by another, similar-looking bird, and I was reassured.

That was the last thing of interest that happened on our little 24-hour North Shore trip. Unless you count the fishermen heading out to their ice houses in the harbor, with the ocean-going ships and grain elevators beyond them in the distance.

But it occurs to me now that we didn't actually finish most of the hikes we started. We didn't really take the spur, or get to the opening between Minnesota and Wisconsin Points, or climb Enger Tower, or reach the open country up on Peace Ridge.

To which I say, So what? We did more than we had done. And next time we'll do more still. And we'll stop in at the brew pub, and the walleye cakes at the Rustic Inn will be better, and the fox will appear. 

And so on, all down the line. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Was Beethoven great? If so, should we care?

Alex Ross wrote a piece in the New Yorker recently in which he raises the question of whether Beethoven's greatness was actually good for the history of music. Might it be possible, he asks, that his towering stature actually stifled the creativity of his successors.

The piece is actually a book review, and it makes for interesting reading on several counts. In the course of it, Ross revives the debate whether Beethoven was actually a Romantic composer at all, rather than a culmination of the Enlightenment spirit.

On the one hand,  E.T.A. Hoffman, writing a review of the Fifth Symphony in 1810, argued that "Beethoven’s music sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain." That sounds like romanticism to me.

However, a few decades ago Alfred Einstein suggested that Beethoven was the most "romantic" of the Classical composers (whereas Schubert was the most "classical" of the Romantic composers).

In so far as the distinction carries meaning at all, I tend to agree with Einstein. Beethoven never abandoned his attachment to form, structure, repeats, variations, and all the rest of the Classical floor plan and furniture. He never fully embraced the notion of the fantasia, the caprice, the ever-flowing expression of emotion that feels no need to adhere to a logical, recognizable pattern. To judge from the record, the reason is that he wasn't very good at constructing melodies. He didn't have that flow. He needed the structures.

A careful listener might arrive at the conclusion that the awe, fear, terror, and pain of which Hoffman speaks is largely an expression of Beethoven's frustration and rage at not being able to come up with WHAT COMES NEXT.

The first movement of the Fifth Symphony, hackneyed though it has become, is still referred to as a fine example of thematic "development." Yet the theme doesn't develop. At a certain point it comes to a halt with some pounding chords, and then starts all over again, having found nowhere new to go. 

The same could be said of the first movements of the Pathetic and Moonlight sonatas, to take two hardly less familiar pieces. On the other hand, the opening movement of Mozart's 39th Symphony (to take a contrary example) rolls from strength to strength, opening up the way a flower opens, coherent, lovely and ever-interesting, never turning back, yet still all of a piece.

It's obvious that Beethoven's music has qualities that Mozart's somewhat lacks: gravity, outrage, unprocessed or sublimated emotion, brute force. It will be argued that the last scene of Don Giovanni has all of these things, and we can find them elsewhere in Mozart's works, no doubt. But Beethoven cranked up the volume. The famous tune from his Ninth Symphony, a choral setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy," is about as banal as they come--about a half step above "Chopsticks"--but gather a hundred people together to sing it, and it will send shivers down your spine.

What keeps us coming back to Beethoven isn't the beauty so much as the difficulty--the challenge. Mozart is so graceful as to be sublime, but the flow can become noxious. 

Everyone seems to love Beethoven's late quartets best, when the flow collapses utterly, and so do I. Nothing so perfect or moving as Mozart's great string quintets, K. 515 and 516, but rather, dotardly musical labyrinths of Lear-like mumblings and grumblings, interspersed with cheery folksongs (abruptly cut short, as if they were shamefully simple-minded) along with classical arpeggios to sustain the forward motion and fill the air with angelic sound. Beethoven's own description of these pieces seems to fit; he once remarked to his publisher, “Thank God, there is less lack of imagination than ever before.”

Beethoven understood himself better than we understand him.

I don't think we need to worry, as Ross evidently does, whether the shadow he cast over the nineteenth century was pernicious. Just say the names--Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Verdi, Brahms, Wagner--and it becomes obvious that the challenge Beethoven presented to his successors was fully met.

That challenge was to cast aside classical conventions more boldly, or thread them more ingeniously, so as to sustain the power Beethoven had shown them how to generate without disrupting the lyric flow.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Where is the North?—Rebranding Minnesota

On Wednesday evening people gathered at the Walker Art Center to discuss rebranding Minnesota as “the North” rather than merely a western appendage of the Midwest. I didn’t go myself. The set-up seemed a little imprecise.

In the first place, Minnesota has long been associated, not with the Midwest but the Upper Midwest. For as long as anyone can remember, the sign on the Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul’s West End has been blinking the slogan The Brew that Grew with the Great Northwest. Northwest Airlines. Great Northern Railroad. Norwest Bank. And so on.

On the same day that the conference took place, Minnesotans concerned about their perceived identity received a shock when the New York Times chose, as a Thanksgiving recipe to represent Minnesota, a grape salad?! The comments section was strewn with remarks by outraged Minnesotans, including eminent local food writers such as Anne Gillespie Lewis and Len Sitvak, the gist of which was—“I’ve lived and cooked here all my life and I’ve never heard of that dish!”

I’m a lifelong Minnesotan myself, and my mom was born and raised on the Range, but I can’t remember ever being served a grape salad. I consulted several cookbooks lying close at hand by the likes of Beth Dooley, Beatrice Ojakangas, and Lucia Watkins, as well as Minnesota’s official state sesquicentennial cookbook, Make It Minnesotan, and a thick volume of Minnesota ethnic cuisine edited by Anne Kaplan (and others) for the Minnesota Historical Society back in 1986, but could find no reference to that dish.

The Times added a few exculpatory remarks to its Facebook version of the piece later in the day, which the Star-Tribune reported on.  

Wisconsinites weren’t too happy with the wild rice dish they were represented by, either. Everyone west of Manhattan knows that Minnesota is the wild rice state. And this brings us back to the whole Midwest connection.

Eric Dayton, scion of a family that needs no introduction, at least to Minnesotans, was one of the individuals behind the discussion at the Walker. "The United States doesn't have a North," the Star-Tribune reports him as saying. He was struck, while touring Scandinavia, by how proud these nations were of their northern heritage. "Why doesn't America have a North?" he asks.

I’ll tell you why. In the first place, America has a South. That’s the region that lost the Civil War. Everything north of that is “north.”

It would appear that countries with a well-defined north and south—Sweden, Norway, Italy—tend to be long, thin, and more-or-less vertical on a standard map. The U.S. is not like that.

Then we have the problem of Canada. Minnesota may be the wild rice state, but seven eighths of the wild rice harvested naturally in North America comes from Canada.

Similarly, Minnesota is justly proud of the pristine lakes and spruce-pine forests that spread across the state just south of its border with North Ontario. But that same landscape continues for hundreds of miles in several directions as you continue north.

Another organizer of the conference, Andrew Blauvelt, a senior curator of architecture and design at the Walker, suggested that people should start thinking less about states and more about regions. He’s referring to multi-state regions more specific than the Midwest, but it would be an even better idea to consider Minnesota itself a land of distinct regions. Minnesota isn’t really the North, but it has an “Up North.”

I wonder if Mr. Blauvelt has ever attended the eelpout festival held every year on the ice of Leech Lake, or the ice house parade in Aitkin? Or the Stamen held in Nisswa’s Pioneer Park every June, which features musicians flown in from Sweden, Norway, and Finland?

(Incidentally, You can read about Minnesota’s diverse regions and the things going on there in my book, The Seven States of Minnesota. I’m offering an Olli class on the subject, complete with slides, in January.)

One thing is for sure: Minnesota’s association with the Midwest isn’t worth much. I noticed that at a trade show for independent booksellers I attended recently. In recent years two groups, the Midwest Independent Bookseller’s Association and the Great Lakes Independent Bookseller’s Association, agreed to host their trade shows jointly, under the rubric of the Heartland Fall Forum. The logic was more economic than geographical, no doubt. More booksellers could view more books put out by regional presses, while publishers from either coast could send a rep and a table full of enticing new books to one trade show in the Midwest, rather than two.

The event reinforced my impression that we in Minnesota lie at the heart of the Upper Midwest, and would gladly abandon the “rust belt” states—Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois—to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and other eastern urban centers. Our woodsy purview may extend to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and our prairie pedigree gropes westward past the Dakotas to Devil’s Tower at least. 

We’d like to include Wisconsin as a near relation in pine woods and liberal politics, though most Minnesotans are more familiar with Eau Claire, Hayward, and Bayfield than Madison or Milwaukee, and may be shocked to discover that Green Bay actually lies south of the Twin Cities.

Many of the convention attendees were from Michigan and Indiana. I found it hard to imagine them taking an interest in Seventy-Five Years of the Minneapolis Aquatennial or Minnesota Twins History through Memorabilia.

I’m not saying that the joint convention is a bad idea. More bodies means more conviviality, and the large proportion of the books on display were addressed to a general audience. You don’t have to be from Wisconsin, for example, to take an interest in Frank Lloyd Wright.

But the experience also highlighted the fact that the Midwest encompasses a multitude of attitudes and atmospheres, while meaning very little itself. I’d happily include Minnesota as part of the Upper Midwest, and then penetrate more deeply still to notions of Up North, the Range, and the Arrowhead as “branding” monikers, before continuing north along the Red River Valley to Winnipeg or northeast across the vast taiga of Canadian Shield to Hudson's Bay.

But for the time being, let me suggest a Thanksgiving recipe I call Beltrami Salad, in honor of the Italian count who failed to locate the headwaters of the Mississippi in 1823—but got close. The dish incorporates our Native American heritage (wild rice), our immigrant population (orzo), and our urban sophistication (that’s the tarragon) into a single tasty dish:

Beltrami Salad

¾ cup wild rice
½ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
¾ cup orzo
2 tablespoons butter
4 shallots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons minced tarragon leaves
2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a medium saucepan, bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Add the wild rice and ½ teaspoon of salt and simmer, covered, until the rice is tender and the grains begin to pop open, about 45 minutes to an hour. Drain well and set aside.

Meanwhile, bring 4 cups of water to a boil in another pot. Add the orzo and boil until the orzo just begins to become tender, 7 to 10 minutes. Drain and cool under cold water. Set aside.

When ready to serve, melt the butter in a large saute pan set over medium heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the wild rice and orzo and cook, stirring, until heated through. Add the tarragon and parsley, season with salt and pepper to taste and cook for an additional minute.
Serve immediately, or at room temperature.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I Refuse - Per Petterson

Per Petterson’s latest novel, I Refuse, resembles its predecessors, Out Stealing Horses and I Curse the River of Time, in the richness and immediacy of its imagery and the scattershot arrangement of its plot. We follow a small group of characters, most of them from troubled families, as their lives deteriorate—or not. But the word “followed” is out of place here, because the small descriptive passages that make up the book jump back and forth repeatedly not only from character to character but also from the 1960s to the first decade of the current century.

I don’t know if this is how the man works, but it would be easy to imagine Petterson writing down his story chronologically, then cutting up the pieces and rearranging them on a bulletin board until the pattern of details and revelations is just right. Yet the individual passages are so vivid that once you’ve read the book, it’s a pleasure to go back and start re-reading it with a better idea in mind of who the characters are and how the pieces fit together.

The novel focuses on childhood neighbors Jim and Tommy, who live in a small town near Oslo. Jim has only a dim recollection of his father. Tommy’s  mother has long since vanished. He and his three younger sisters bear the almost daily abuses of a violent father. At the age of thirteen, Tommy feels he’s old enough, and big enough, to settle the score, and from that point on the siblings are dispersed to various foster parents in the community.

Jim and Tommy are best friends. Jim is the “cool” one, though his mother is a Christian. Tommy is ever the hothead, though the man who takes him in, Mr. Jonson, gives him a job at the local mill and helps him straighten out his life.

I won’t be giving much away if I reveal that Jim and Tommy eventually drift apart. The first scene in the book depicts Tommy, in a new Mercedes, pausing on a bridge at dawn to say hi to Jim, who’s fishing there with other ne’er-do-wells. The year is 2006. The two haven’t seen one another in decades, but Jim is still wearing the same blue cap. It’s clear from their conversation that Tommy misses his old friend, while Jim has long since grown indifferent to Tommy and a lot of other things. Why?

Smaller strands of the book follow Tommy’s mother after she leaves the family, and his sister Siri, who falls in love with Jim. Petterson gives us just enough detail to establish how Tommy became a successful financier, and to limn the lifelong bouts of depression that underlie Jim’s inability to stick with his prestigious position at a local research library.

A surprising portion of the book is given over to geography, as Jim describes again and again which highways or pedestrian route through the city he took to get somewhere:

He turned left on the bend by the art centre and into the high street. 1t was chilly along the road, but it was always colder in Lillestrøm and windier than anywhere else in Romerike, and the wind was moist and clingy and stuck to your skin.

From the high street he entered the mall, Lillestrøm City, through the swing doors, and right after the doors, before the shops unfolded to the left and right, he stopped in front of the door leading to the staircase and the lift and stood there waiting. There was a sign on the wall that among other things said: Social Security 2nd floor. I'll have to go up, he thought, I have no choice. But he didn’t open the door. He looked at his watch. There was still another quarter of an hour. he walked into the mall and took the escalator down to the basement where the bakery was open, and …

 There are also more than a few lyrical passages of outdoor stuff, which might almost be described as Hemingwayesque, with a bit of Margaret Wise Brown thrown in for good measure:

Jim and Tommy came down the path between the trees towards Lake Aurtjern. The ice shone in the moonlight. They were up to their ankles in snow. Their ice hockey skates dangled on their chests with the laces lied around their necks. They were both wearing caps. Jim’s long hair was tucked under the edge, and they looked unfamiliar, different, even to each other, but although Tommy was taller than Jim they looked more like each other with their caps on than they did without, they just weren’t aware of it themselves.

The moon was mirrored on the ice, and the ice looked as solid as it was. It was a night of blue ice, minus ten degrees, and the moon lit up parts of the rocky hill behind the lake and drew dark lines down where the ravines ran from the top to the far bank. A fir tree leaned over the lake casting crooked shadows across the ice. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Everything was still. They stopped for a moment in the snow by the bank and gazed at what lay in front of them. Jim turned to Tommy and said:

‘You could get religious for less.’

'You’re already religious.’ Tommy said.

‘Not so much any longer, actually. I'm a socialist. I’m for a classless society.’

Much of the strength of the book lies in the immediacy of such descriptions. The lack of authorial analysis or narrative links contributes to the same vivid effect. Who are these people? Why can’t they be friends? Why does Jim burst into uncontrollable sobbing from time to time?  Why is Tommy estranged from his wife? Where did his mom go?

Petterson has created a dark, lovely, incomprehensible world that resembles the one we live in, where emotions are multivalent, relationships are prone to both missteps and misunderstandings, and motives are often obscure.  

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Snow Approaches

It’s one of those exciting days known only to people of the north. Snow is on the way! Not a disaster. Just a fact. Whether it will be eight inches or two, it will be here tomorrow, which makes today a sort of temporal enclosure or envelope—a span within which to get a few things done and savor the tag end of the fall season.

These things include -

a) finally raking the back yard. This is easy. What with the woods and the garden, there isn’t much left to rake. And I’ve already run the mower over the leaves once or twice.

b) getting out the ladder and cutting off the dead branch on the mulberry tree that’s been fully visible out the bedroom window, bent at a grotesque angle, for the last two years. Something about using one of those saws on the end of a long metal pole is tiring. I think it may be the work involve. But it’s fun to be out in that part of the yard, where I seldom go. And looking around the corner of the house to see how the viburmun trilobum we planted this summer is doing, I see that two “volunteer” Norway maples have sprouted in the vicinity. 

The fall leaf color was spectacular this year, and nothing surpassed the noble, buttery yellow of the Norway maples. They’re considered an invasive species, I know, but I consider that judgment ridiculous: You could let one grow for five years and remove it in five minutes. So what’s the problem? My thought is to cut down the entire mulberry tree and see what these two maples can do. But we’ll leave that project for the spring.  

c)  putting sunflower seeds in the feeders. This may sound like a recurring chore, but the raccoons have been raiding our feeder repeatedly and we’d gotten into the habit of leaving them empty or depositing only a handful of seed at a time. Perhaps the raccoons are gone by now?

I took a look out the window half an hour later and noticed that a nuthatch, a chickadee, and a red-bellied woodpecker were all feeding, with a goldfinch swinging merrily from the finch feeder hanging below. I spotted a hairy woodpecker on the trunk of the silver maple and a junco in the underbrush. Now, there’s a winter bird for you…though it seems the juncos mostly pass through on either end of the season.

d) bringing in the garden hoses and shutting off the water. While out in the garden I noticed that one day lily was still “in bloom.” Perhaps it’s frozen. The purple lamium is also blooming. And the broad, elephant-eared leaves of the Siberian bugloss are still dark green. I didn’t realize we had so many.

d) bringing the wrought-iron chairs in from the deck.  The three thoughts that accompany this chore are 1). Don’t fall down the basement stairs; 2). I should clear the ashes out of the grill; 3). We could grill something tonight!

e) wrapping the cedar trees with green plastic fencing to keep the deer that come up in the winter from Bassett Creek at bay. 

Some people worry about Russia. Some people worry about China. Many people worry about the Republicans. But as I performed this task I pondered how civilization will survive once everyone runs out of twisty ties, which zip-lock bags have rendered superfluous? (Looking it up later I find you can buy a thousand of them for 64 cents. What a relief!)

I cleared the leaves out of the gutters a few days ago, surprising though it may seem. It strikes me that this is a senseless task—almost a superstition. The gutters are frozen all winter, so what different does it make if they have leaves in them?

At long last, the ladder and the pole saw go back into the garage, along with the rake and the broom Hilary used to sweep off the deck. It remains to saw up the mulberry branch, but that can wait for an hour or two.

There’s a pot of day-old vegetable soup in the refrigerator. And now I see a downy woodpecker climbing the half-dead tree outside the window.

Once the chores are done, the still relatively balmy afternoon (35 degrees) calls out for a field trip of some kind. So we drove across the Mississippi to the Banfill-Locke Art Center in Fridley where the paintings of the Swedish-American painter Elof Wedin are on display. It’s a nice gallery housed in a white frame, two-story building that dates to 1847. It was once an inn catering to drovers on the Red River Oxcart trail. Rice Creek meanders down to the Mississippi through a park north of the building.

Wedin’s paintings are interesting, though I prefer his WPA style to his later, more angular and abstract 1950s style. Hilary chatted at some length with one of the volunteers while I ate crackers and nuts—it was the opening—and circulated again and again through the four rooms of the exhibit, finding the paintings more interesting with every pass.

It took about a day for the ox cart drivers of the 1850s to get to downtown Minneapolis from Banfill-Locke. It took us fifteen minutes to get to the Northern Clay Center in the Seward neighborhood, south of downtown,  where a show of award-winning Canadian pottery was on display. For my money, the functional pottery for sale in the gallery was far more interesting, and infinitely more affordable, than the items on display in the exhibition hall. Many of the names are familiar— Cuellar, Swanson, Norman, Severson—but the pots remain diverse and appealing. One potter from Superior, Wisconsin, whose name I forget, had four massive yet  handsome jugs on display. I kept trying to imagine what I’d put in one of them, if I bought it: Orzo? Quinoa? Coffee beans?  

A few blocks down Franklin Avenue Hilary spotted a sign halfway up a side street that said Boneshaker Books. We circled the block, parked, and went in.

It’s a nifty little bookshop with a radical tinge, about the size of a farmhouse kitchen. Three bearded youths were reading at scattered chairs. Two twenty-somethings sat behind the checkout counter. There were plenty of chapbooks, zines, and small-press items on the rack. And I noticed that the section called “literature” was hardly bigger than the one called “anarchism.”

I’m all in favor of anarchism myself—just so long as everyone behaves themselves.

The great things about small bookstores is that they expose you to new things without overwhelming you with options. I saw one interesting book called Utopia or Bust: a Guide to the Present Crisis by Benjamin Kunkel. Better yet, Hilary spotted a book called Why New Orleans Matters on the “used” shelf for a dollar.

We bought it, and are now confident that when the storm hits, we’ll be ready.