Thursday, May 28, 2015

Walks in (Drizzle) Beauty

Walk in beauty: so the Navajo advise us, though it's not that easy to do. Yet sometimes it seems that beauty walks in us. Or all around us. We try to worm our way in.

Hilary had six or seven friends over for book club Friday night. That's a good time for me to get out of the house for a while. I hauled my bike down to Lake of the Isles and did a few circuits. Everyone was out in shorts and t-shirts, on paddleboards, in colorful kayaks and canoes, walking dogs, pushing strollers, sprawled on the grass reading books.

Then on to Calhoun, where I parked on the west side of the lake, just across from the volleyball courts, and pulled out my copy of Roberto Calasso's Ardor.

The Vedic world involved a cult, closely bound up with texts of extreme complexity, and an intoxicating plant. A state of awareness became the pivot around which turned  thousands and thousands of meticulously codified ritual acts. A mythology, as well as the boldest speculation, arose out of the fateful and dramatic encounter between a liturgy and rapture.

I was having a hard time concentrating (maybe you were, too) when suddenly it occurred to me that I was only a few blocks from a shop I'd read about in the paper that sold Minnesota-grown plants such as turtlehead and cup plant. Thus I abandoned the mysterious life of northern India circa 2000 B.C. and penetrated ever deeper into the equally mysterious life of the Linden Hills neighborhood.

The shop was nowhere to be found, but a few blocks down the way I passed 44 France liquor store, which I hadn't visited for at least fifteen years. I parked and went inside.

I liked the place. It didn't seem so Edina-esque as I'd remembered. I was looking over the bargain bins when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that my old friend Fran was standing right next to me. I play tennis with her husband from time to time, and I happened the know he was in Norway visiting his brother. She told me a little about how the trip was going, and about how much she was enjoying her week of solitude. Though she wasn't relishing it as much as she'd hoped. That horrible thing called work kept getting in the way.

When I asked her about the plant shop I was looking for, she said: "I don't think there's a business like that near here. But there is a woman who sets out some things on planks along the sidewalk on weekends."

Fran suggested we head over to the tasting table but I begged off. "I can't do that," I said. "I tend to like all wines. Stay within your price range and keep trying new things. That's my strategy."

The next morning Hilary and I headed back down to the lakes. We circled Isles and Calhoun by bike, wandered the rock garden north of Harriet, but turned back to the car when it began to drizzle.

Back on 44th Street, we found the woman with her small selection of plants out on the sidewalk and bought a few. (She only sells plants native to Minnesota, so she had the white turtleheads, but not the purple.) 

Passing  Sunnyside Gardens just down the block, we stopped in to pick up some zinnias and ran into columnist Lori Sturdevant. "What are you doing here?" I said. "You're supposed to be a St. Paulite now."

"Oh, I've always loved this nursery. And I'm glad I ran into you. I need some advice about a lilac bush at our new yard. It seems to be in the wrong place." So we chatted about that for a while.

The morning was gray, but the drizzle was a mere tickle—so light as to be non-existent. A perfect day to plant. And not only that. After a good deal of debate, we decided the time had come to repair the crumbling border to the garden.

It's been deteriorating for years, but I was holding fast to the idea that the best solution might be to allow it to disappear entirely, thus naturalizing the space. Once the logs had rotted we could create a far less boxy look simply by shifting a few plants around. One benefit to this plan was that it required almost no work. The drawback was that it might take a decade or more for Mother Nature to complete her part of the operation, during which time the garden would continue to look run down and ill-kept.

Hilary pulled a log out from under the deck that had been there since we moved in 1986. It was a little bent, but it fit the space nicely. My job would be to drive some spikes through the log to hold it in place. And that, I knew, would be much easier if I pre-drilled the holes. And that would be much easier, I was sure, if my drill actually worked.

Ninety minutes later I was holding a bright green Ryobi drill in my hand, with which I cheerily ground a few holes through the replacement log. (I found that the drill worked even better, and stopped emitting an unpleasant burning smell, when it was set on forward rather than reverse.) The salesman at Home Depot had done an exemplary job of explaining what was likely to be wrong with my old drill, and why it might make sense to get it fixed (they don't make them like they used to).

With nary a hint of condescension, he patiently reviewed the relative merits of the corded and battery-powered models currently available. In fact, he was so personable and articulate that I left the store absolutely convinced I'd made a brilliant choice.

The spikes I bought had looked a little big in the store, but they also proved to be perfectly suited to the task at hand.

The gray weather lingered throughout the weekend, and so did the unhurried pace, which added to the pleasure of planting things. You look over the garden spaces in a kind of mental fog as your mind reviews all the plants that have died or disappeared in previous years. You envision sure-fire winners such as zinnia and cleome. You ponder bee- and butterfly- and bird-friendly native choices and wonder where you might find them for sale. You wonder what you might divide, and what you might remove entirely. And there are always violets and ferns to thin and remove.

The weekend was pleasantly punctuated by a birthday party (it happened to be for me), dinner guests, and even a film—the appropriately rural Far from the Madding Crowd.

By Monday morning the sun had arrived. During a trip to the farmer's market (our second of the weekend) I picked up some pre-started morning glories, and on the way home I snagged a red-twigged dogwood at Cub to plant on the far side of the house, where two diseased elm trees are no longer with us.

Throughout the weekend we lived on tomatoes, fresh basil, garlic and olive oil on toasted slices of bread. But this is a summer-time thing.

In Minnesota, spring lasts about three weeks. Summer is here.       

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Zenon Dance in the Balkans

Walking down Hennepin Avenue on a Sunday afternoon you're likely to see some interesting people. We found ourselves walking behind a smallish man with curly hair holding a young girl by the hand. They were dressed as if on their way to a picnic—he might once have been a roadie for the Lovin' Spoonful, to judge from his appearance— and I was idly concocting slightly melancholy scenarios on the order of "divorced man finishes his shift at popcorn stand to take daughter to story-time at the library" as we followed the couple down the sidewalk, along the way passing any number of flashy restaurants we'll never see the inside of.
The reality was cheerier and less prosaic: "Man takes daughter to see wife on stage at Zenon Dance Company spring performance." As it happened, we were going to the same show, and we followed them into the lobby.
I haven't been to a modern dance performance since I reviewed one or two for Twin Cities magazine back in the 1980s. I enjoyed them then, but we'd gotten into the habit of spending our entertainment dollars elsewhere. We were attending the Zenon performance because a friend of ours is a member of Mila, a Balkan choir that was providing the music for the first number.
And that number was simply great. Bulgarian harmonies are a little weird to begin with—dense and dissonant—while the articulation is usually crisp and sometimes chirpy. These six barefoot women dressed in simple black outfits filled the auditorium with sound, leaning confidently into rich, throaty chords that most of us seldom hear. (It took me a while to figure out that the choir was also expertly miked.)
The sound alone sometimes carried the force of a Greek tragedy, condensed into a few plangent wails. The addition of dancing lightened the mood. The dancers appeared to be wearing glowing gunnysacks; their movements were dreamlike and incomprehensible. At times they held thin golden branches above their heads, which brought to mind notions of stag-hunting but also of Eleusinian mysteries and pagan fertility rites. I got to thinking about Jason and his Argonauts, who sailed from Greece to Bulgaria—or somewhere in the Black Sea—and returned home with the Golden Fleece...and also Medea.
The performance might have meant more if I'd been able to memorize the song lyrics about village life in the Balkans provided in the program. Then again, the impact might have been diminished. In any case, the music and the movement were well-suited to one another and the entire piece, choreographed by Wynn Fricke, was mesmerizing.
 The last piece on the program, “Coming Home," was hardly less engaging. Composed and choreographed by Osnel Delgado, it, too, had compelling music and drew on folk sources. The flair was Cuban, the theme was baseball. A full troupe of women and men frolicked across the stage in brightly colored muscle-shirts and tights, doing stylized imitations of a pitcher winding up or a batter awaiting a pitch. The music was twang-guitar, rhythmic and repetitive, buoyant and boisterous, and it all had the flavor of a whimsical spring New Yorker cover come to life.
Sandwiched between these number were two post-modern pieces that were far less successful. In “Molten Substance,” choreographer Luciana Achugar set four women with hair down over their faces to fiddling with their jeans to the rhythms of a drummer (J.T. Bates) seated behind them on stage. They kick them around, wear them on their arms, and eventually put them on without using their hands. It took a long time, and it reminded me of an out-take from that 1950s daytime TV show Beat the Clock. In this episode, no one won. I ended up enjoying it, but I think the one-minute TV commercial of a woman seen through an upstairs room putting on her jeans using her hands might be better.
Perhaps I missed the feminist subtext?
In retrospect, "Molten Substance" seemed like a minor triumph. The piece that opened the second half of the show, “Inside Wrinkles,” was truly dreadful. It was mentioned in a local review that the choreographer, Chris Schlichting, likes to use repetitive vernacular movements rather than stylish dance movements in his work, the result being an "intricate webs" of rubbing, flexing, pointing, strolling, and gyrating motions. The piece was definitely intricate. Whether it could be said to be interesting is another matter. To my eyes, the only impressive thing was that the dancers could remember all the monotonous, mechanistic, and otherwise unattractive steps they were required to do during the lengthy silent routine. Whereas other numbers on the program sent me to the Black Sea or a Cuban baseball field, these "wrinkles" called to mind the insane diagrams drawn by medieval alchemists in their attempts to summon evil forces to do their bidding.
Though I know little about dance, it strikes me that such post-modern pieces must be especially interesting to jaded insiders who are tired of all the brilliant work that's been done in the modern dance field during the last quarter-century. It was shrewd of the program coordinator to begin and end with the richer, more musical, and more rewarding numbers.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Mary Norris, a copy editor at the New Yorker, has written a book that touches a range of genres from Mad Men to The Elements of Style. Personal anecdotes dating back to the 1960s, when Norris first landed a job at that stylish New York magazine, are loosely intermixed with detailed analyses of picayune grammar issues that every copy editor faces—and often enjoys.

Norris herself is a likeable sort—so much so that I have no qualms about referring to her familiarly as "Mary." She worked her way up from a cheese factory in her hometown in Cleveland to the New Yorker editorial department via hard work and a series of accidents. 

Although the magazine has been through several editors and shifts of tone since she arrived there, Mary  isn't interested in that sort of thing. Her steady points of reference aren't William Shawn or David Remnick, but Eleanor Gould (grammarian and query proofreader) and Lu Burke (proofreader). She speaks with school-girl awe of the writers she's copy-edited, which range from Pauline Kael and Phillip Roth to John McPhee and Ian Frazier. Well, who wouldn't?

One of Mary's early "catches" was to hunt down and verify a minor misquotation from a children's book in a piece by Phillip Roth. The fiction editor, Bill Bufford, sent it along to Roth, highlighting Mary's discovery. Roth wrote back: "Who is this woman? And will she come live with me?"

Thus began Mary's abiding interest in Roth's fiction—and the man himself. "I have been smitten ever since the proposition on the page proof. I suppose all he wanted was a housekeeper, someone to keep track of the details. But if he should ever read this I just want to say I'm still available."

Norris's enthusiasm for language and literature is contagious. She seems to have a robust curiosity about a lot of things, in fact, which is a good quality for any editor to cultivate. She writes:

"One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey. And in turn it feeds you more experience."

Her motive for writing, she tells us, was to pass on the expertise she has acquired to us.

Early on in the book, Mary faces up to the fact that in the public imagination, editors are haughty, mysterious creatures who think they know best and always want to get their way.

"The image of the copy editor is of someone who favors a rigid consistency, a mean person who enjoys pointing out other people’s errors, a lowly person who is just starting out on her career in publishing and is eager to make an impression, or, at worst, a bitter, thwarted person who wanted to be a writer but got stuck dotting the i's and crossing the t's and otherwise advancing the careers of other writers."

She shatters that stereotype by example. Her tone is modest, her judgments provisional, her respect for the author's intention sincere. She describes her position, tongue slightly in cheek, as "anti-ultracrepidationalism." In simple language, she strives not to go beyond her province.

Yet the position she holds at the magazine has a force of its own.

"I always forget that, in the popular imagination, the copy editor is a bit of a witch, and it surprises me when someone is afraid of me. Not long ago, a young editorial assistant getting her first tour of the New Yorker offices paused at my door to be introduced, and when she heard I was a copy editor she jumped back, as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas."

This passage may be taken as a typical example of Norris's writing style: breezy, chirpy, and occasionally  daring in its use of analogies drawn from daily life,  but also prone to minor solecisms. 

The phrase "I always forget...", for example, is a little off. If you are always in the process of forgetting something, then you aren't forgetting it at all—you simply have no recollection of it. "I often forget" or "I sometimes forget" or "I tend to forget" would have been better.

Then again, in the last sentence of the paragraph,  "as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen" is brilliant, at least to my mind, and corresponds perfectly with the "jumping back" she describes, while the second simile is hard to visualize and dulls the force of its predecessor.

In offering these petty suggestions for improvement, I'm obeying a sort of Murphy's Law, described by David Marsh of the Guardian (and quoted by Mary) as follows: "If you write anything criticizing editing or proof-reading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written."  

Alas, the more technical sections of subsequent chapters, such as when Norris tries to explain in detail how nominative and accusative positions affect word usage, can be pretty dull. And I suppose some subjects, such as word-breaks, are going to be dull no matter how you approach them. Then again, I had never considered the fact (until now) that where a word is broken may depend not only on how it's spelled but on how it's used. Thus, when I fire someone, I "ca-shier" him or her; but if I take a job behind the register, I become a "cash-ier." By the same token, a beer that I order might arrive in a "bum-per," but someone who bumps into me at the bar is a "bump-er." That's what Mary says, anyway.

Norris includes a long section on the relative merits of various dictionaries, and a slightly-too-long digression into the life and character of Daniel Webster himself. Her discussion of gender and pronoun issues is garbled a little oddly with anecdotes about her brother's first efforts at cross-dressing. And there are a few analogies to automotive repair that fall flat.

As for hyphens, the book presents us with numerous opportunities to challenge the positions she endorses, after she's finished weighing the pros and cons of her colleagues opinions against her own judgment.

"Eleanor Gould seemed to hyphenate everything," she writes, "and Lu Burke hated anything extra." So, where do you put the hyphen in "baby back ribs," "bad hair day," "bright red car," "blue stained glass"? Or is a hyphen necessary?

Norris settles on bright-red car, but that seems odd to me. I don't think a hyphen is necessary. Why not? Because "red" and "bright" are in two separate categories of attribute already. One refers to a tint, the other refers to a degree of luminosity. These two naturally go together to form a adjectival phrase, which is not quite the same thing as a compound adjective. On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with describing autumn leaves as red-yellow, rather than merely orange.

She goes for blue-stained glass, which is once again a little bizarre. The phrase conjures an image of a piece of clear glass that someone has subsequently smeared with blueberries. In fact, the staining of the glass is coterminous with the production of it. The result of the process is stained glass. What color? In this case, it's blue stained glass.

You may not agree with these assertions of mine, but if you don't find such quibbles at least mildly interesting, you probably won't like this book.

Norris has an aversion to the semi-colon, for no other reason, I guess, than that she feels she's not the type of person who would use them. They're too rich for her blood—as my dad used to say about Jack Daniels. (He also thought semicolons were pretentious.)

But Mary admits she has an abiding appreciation for Henry James's semicolons.

"...Henry James uses semicolons for timing. They accumulate in a way that can make sentiments appear simultaneous, although it's impossible to read two things at once."

Of course, anyone can use semicolons for timing; it's like a rolling stop that keeps the reader moving ahead, while remaining cognizant of what came immediately before.

In the end, what Mary Norris passes on to us, more than any particular rule or concept, is her love of the language—its power, its logic (and lack thereof), its nuances. She also conjures the anxieties that haunt any conscientious copy editor. "Why didn't I query that?" "Why did I let that blooper through?"

Most writers, and many substantive editors, too, have the same feeling about a text as the one that biographer Nicholas Delbanco (quoted by Norris) describes Herman Melville as having regarding his masterpiece, Moby-Dick:  

"The proofs...were replete with errors, but ... he became impatient of such minute, gnat-like torments; he randomly corrected the worst, and let the rest go; jeering with himself at the rich harvest thus furnished to the entomological critics."

Both writers and editors depend on copy editors (and proofers) to alleviate their own anxieties on this account—and hope and pray that their publisher can afford such luxuries.

The New Yorker can. It has copy editors and proofers and fact-checkers galore. Mary Norris wrote a book about it. And it's a lot of fun to read.