Wednesday, March 23, 2016

All the Things You Could Have Had

I hesitate to mention all the things you could have had ... if I'd know you would want them.

But aren't many of us in the same boat? Trying to down-size (dumb word), to rid ourselves of "things" that we look at without seeing or store away and then forget where we put them?

The old expression "time will tell" comes into play here. There is nothing wrong with those lampshades you see, except that we've never had occasion to use them these last twenty years.

And that rocking chair is in good shape. It's just that we have a few other rocking chairs.

The ten-gallon glass carboy that I used to make a batch of third-rate wine a quarter of a century ago, just to see how it was done, has been sitting under the stairs to the basement ever since. It's time to let go.

 But what about that wooden chest my grandpa MacIlvenna made as a toy box for me (or someone else) a half-century ago? Do you think my brother in Baltimore might want it? I know my sister has no interest, because I asked her, and nor does cousin Pat. We used it for many years to store our VHS tapes, but lightning struck the VHS player five years ago, and last year we threw out most of the tapes. It's time.

A Danish/English dictionary smelling of mildew? No thanks. You'll probably pass on the English/Danish companion volume, too. We told our neighbors across the street that they could have whatever they wanted. Heirloom martini glasses? Margarita glasses shaped like saguaro cactuses? Ice skates so narrow they fit no one. A deflated football (Wilson T.D.) that my high school coach, Mr. Smith, gave me a few days before I quit?

Of course there are plenty of things left for round two: A wooden squash racquet, slightly warped; a globe that shows how the world looked when French West Africa still existed. (Ah, those were the days!) A pair of Alaskan Trapper snowshoes that I haven't worn since college.About a hundred LPs, lined up against the back wall of the basement behind numerous stacks of slide carousels.

The one great discovery of this clean-up campaign (of which I was not in command) was that the Bose book-shelf speakers still work. I hooked them up to the CD boom box (which had developed a hum) and the basement filled with sound. 

Inspired by the spirit of "cast-offs" I dug through a box of old flamenco CDs and came upon a five-CD box set of Bill Evans live trio recordings called Turn Out the Stars. It may have been the last recording he made before he died.

I probably found it a little too frantic when I bought it, but it suddenly seemed perfectly joyous and appropriate to the task of weeding through some of the books that I have not examined carefully in years.

But that's a story for another time.

One artifact I came across and know I'll have to dispose of sometime soon is a work of art created by one of my colleagues at the Bookmen, a warehouse where I used to work. The artist in question is Joel Dale. He wasn't there long, but while he was with us he started a collection of packing peanuts which he later mounted into a display that he gave me when he left. It's an extraordinary set, and what makes the display more interesting yet, he named all the varieties. For example: sugar cube, T-bar, egg shell, crow bar (lightning type), Joshua's Boomerang, potato chip, dinner mint, geometric waffle, The Claw, steak bone, Spanish dancer (pink, white, green, and smooth varieties), Macaroni (I like that one), sea slug, double trouble, and along the bottom row, ten varieties of "infinity."

Joel was quite a character, but he outdid himself with that display. Well, the Bookmen was full of interesting characters, and every spring, on the first day when the temperature hits 70 degrees, I let myself off from work early, just like we used to do at the warehouse downtown.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Jeremy Walker at the Vieux Carree

The other day a friend and I dropped in at the Vieux Carree, the subterranean jazz club in downtown St. Paul, to hear pianist Chris Lomheim play a solo set. The evening light was beautiful, glancing off the Landmark Center and the St. Paul Hotel, and the club was all but deserted.

It was Happy Hour. We ordered a plate of Basque olives ($5) and some Reuda for $3 a glass while we examined the menu. When our waitress returned I ordered a mufalleta that was good but dense and took a long time to eat, while Tim took a chance on the gumbo. Flavorful, though lacking in "hot" spice.

While we ate, the pianist delivered a succession of pensive ballads including Thelonious Monk's "Pannonica" and a string of standards including "You Don't Know What Love Is," and "Everything Happens to Me." Later Tim requested a Bill Evans number, which was also nice, though I didn't recognize it.

During his break the pianist over to our table to chat. Turns out we both have the same Jackie Byard "Live at Maybeck Hall" CD. 

"Most people who do a solo set end up doing stride," I said, "just to fill in the sound, I guess. You didn't do much of that."

"I like stride ... but I wasn't doing that tonight." He excused himself to go back to his table, eat some food, and study the scores he'd brought with him.

Our waitress was attentive throughout our visit. Little wonder. Aside from a few young hipsters at the bar, we were the only people in the place.  We noticed that she had a slight accent. When Tim asked her about it, she explained: "I'm from Wisconsin."

"Where abouts?" I asked.

"Amery," she replied. (That's a ninety-minute drive from Minneapolis.)

"Amery is a nice town," I said. "Lakes all around." (My dad used to rent a meat locker in Amery.)

"Yes it is," she replied. "But we lived in the country."

"Was your dad a farmer?"

"Until I was three," she said.

"What did he do after that?"

"Odd jobs. Anything. Now he's plowing roads for the city." She smiled wanly. "You should see them. They're great!"

"We'll have to get over there soon, before all his handiwork disappears!" I replied.

Later the manager stopped by to talk up the Happy Hour  (it goes until 7) and emphasize the Vieux Carree's philosophy of providing a venue for good local musicians at affordable prices. A wonderful strategy, though to my ear, there's something a little artificial about the New Orleans association.

Then she said, "I'm sorry Chris Lomheim couldn't make it tonight."

"What? Who is this guy?"

"I'm not sure. I'll go find out."

"Anyway, he's good."

The man's name is Jeremy Walker. And he is good.


Sunday, March 6, 2016

La Dolce Far Niente - Northern Style

It was hard to tell if there would be enough snow for skiing, but it didn't matter much.  We wanted to get away, and we hadn't been to Bayfield in quite a while.

Layer upon layer of doing the same things, not out of respect for tradition, but because they continue to be rewarding. As we turn east on Highway 70 from the freeway, the drive suddenly becomes more interesting. Winter sun, open fields.  long dip down and across the venerable St. Croix River. Brown signs directing passers-by to secluded but mosquito-infested campsites along the river bank. Crex Meadows? Nothing going on there. Siren, Hertel, Spooner. Finally north on Highway 63. The North Woods commences somewhere north of there. I never pass through Cable without thinking about the stuffed raven at the local natural history museum. It's huge.

There is no grand view at Grand View, though there might have been right after they logged the place a hundred years ago.

Washburn is a jivey town on a Friday afternoon, the streets in front of the bars already choked with parked cars. They're doing "Julius Caesar" at the local theater tonight. Will we go? I doubt it.

*   *   *
But now the Black Box wine is open, and we've cooked up the pasta with mushrooms and bell peppers on the little stove in our room. The room sits on a hill above the rest of the motel, which gives it an expansive view of Chequamegon Bay.  I see a single set of lights in the darkness far out on the channel that divides the mainland from Madeline Island. Either the ferry's still running or it's a propeller-driven ice buggy—I can't tell which.

Saturday morning, sunny, blue ski everywhere. A little skiing, but mostly walking, on the Jerry Jolly ski trail. Down to Polk Creek, still covered in snow, then back to Bayfield for a stroll through town. 

We stopped into a coffee shop just as the man behind the counter, who was wearing an immaculate white T-shirt, was pouring himself a latte. "Look at this," he said. "Look at this."

I walked over to look at the design in the foam. Nothing extraordinary, but he seemed excited.

"And in my grandma's tin cup!" he enthused.

While I waited for the latte we'd ordered he kept saying "This is so good! This is so good!" as he paced back and forth behind the counter. His assistant was working the espresso machine.

When my order finally came up, I said, "I hope this will be as good as yours was."

"Almost," he replied with a grin. "I made mine with half-and-half. It's like drinking ice cream!"

Having disposed of the coffee and a bacon-and-cheddar scone, we walked down to the pier to look at the broken ice in the bay. A ferry was visible in the distance and we waited for it to arrive: The Island Queen. The service has been running all winter, we later learned, though the ice fishermen were also taking their chances out on the sheet on the north side of the pier.

Our next stop was Apostle Island Books, where we chatted with the proprietress for quite a while about books, author events,  the local fishing industry, and the challenges facing any small-town independent bookstore.

I was happy to see two books by friends displayed in the window: Jane St. Anthony's Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken Heart and Brett Laidlaw's Trout Caviar.  And I hunted down another book of pressing interest on the shelf, Ann Lewis's Ship Captain's Daughter, which Demaris kindly set out on the display counter.

By the time we got set to leave, we've been in the store so long that it seemed heartless not to buy something. Demaris had been recommending a local publication about ice-fishing disasters called Lake Superior: Blood on the Ice —in fact, she was holding the thick paperback volume in her hand. Though it didn't sound too hot to me, Hilary was dead-set on buying it. And so we did.

Our final stop was to Bodin's fish market, where you can walk right in and see the workers gutting the day's catch. "Two days ago our men were out on snowmobiles," the man who took our order said. "This morning they went out in boats."

We ran into Mike, who owns the motel we're staying in, on the path that runs between the shipyard and the cliff on the south side of town. He was wearing short shorts—not uncommon for him when the temperature is above zero. He's a friendly guy, a good source of local information, and he likes to talk. "Yeah, in November the lake temperature was still 40 degrees, so they knew the channel could be kept open all winter, and they could continue to run the ferries. Even if the air temperature was below zero the ice would still be melting from the bottom up. That changes their whole year, because they usually lay people off and do repairs in winter."

Mike claims to put in a ninety-five hour week at the motel, and he admits he's ripe for retirement. I'm sure he was a little disappointed when his daughter and son-in-law, who were set to take over the place, announced recently they were moving to central Kansas.

Back in our eyrie above the big lake, we fried up and ate the fish, and then we settled in to read. The fact that your choices are limited helps you to concentrate--at least that's the theory. A lot depends on how well you chose your books in the first place.

I soon lost interest in Umberto Eco's The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, and had a hard time convincing myself to return to the Icelandic classic, Independent People, which it seems I've been reading now for months. I would like to have gotten my hands on Blood on the Ice, to tell you the truth, but Hilary was engrossed in that masterpiece of local color. I finally succeeded in focusing for a few minutes on a book about Orpheus that I'd grabbed off the shelf on a whim just before we left the house, but it was more pleasant simply staring out the window at the shifting ice a half mile out on the lake.

 We left early the next morning, driving in snow flurries under gray skies back down Highway 63. A wolf crossed the road fifty yards in front of us somewhere north of Cable. There was no one behind us, and as I slowed to a stop I spotted him staring back at us from the trees on the side of the highway.

Curiosity fading to indifference, he turned and wandered off into the shadows.