Friday, December 23, 2016

Silly Swedish Solstice

Each year the approach of the winter solstice brings out a peculiar form of silliness. Days are short, Christmas is nearing, yet many of us feel the urge to have a nocturnal celebration that has nothing to do with consumerism or religion. Hence the appeal of the solstice celebration.

It can be as simple as pulling the firepit out from under the deck, lighting a fire in it, and standing around with a glass of wine or brandy, admiring the stars or talking about how cold it is.

But the other night a friend from Texas was visiting and we decided to drive down to the slightly more elaborate celebration being held at the American Swedish Institute. The drive itself was splendid, along the west bank of the Mississippi in the dark, with the bright red lettering of PILLSBURY'S BEST FLOUR shining in the distance across the river. South on Portland Avenue, we were soon passing the looming, evil presence of the new death star football stadium.

A few minutes later we were pulling into the lot of the Swedish Institute—then pulling out again. It was full. But parking a block away made it possible for us to get a nice sweeping view of the old/new institution as we approached.

We were waiting in line in the lobby to pay the entry fee when I overheard a tall, blond, thirtyish woman say to a female friend, "My mother always told me I could many a person of any creed or race, but I could never marry a Swede."

Our first stop was for a glass of glüg at the bar on the second floor, where they were also distributing elaborate smores to the kids. (My dad—100% Swedish—used to make glug every year; I think I still have the recipe somewhere. But he was a chemist, and some of the ingredients he used came directly from the lab.)

Our next stop was to the firepits outside. I had imagined there would be a single big blaze somewhere, maybe ten feet high, but the fires were modest, if not actually anemic. All the same, it's fun to mill around in the dark with a bunch of strangers whose faces are lit only by firelight.

A forest of tiny balsam firs had been set up nearby and decked with white lights, in the midst of which sat an antique Volvo driven by two or three stuffed tomtens.

We went into the Turnblad mansion to check out the period rooms, which had been decorated for the season and set with distinctive dishes and glassware from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and even Finland.

Hilary (who spent a year in Denmark during her college years) almost gasped when she saw the Danish Christmas tree. "That's what they look like," she said. "The candles, the paper hearts in red and white. There was a lot of singing and dancing around the tree."

Up on the third floor a nyckelharpa concert was about to commence. The elderly woman standing in front of me had an accent, and I asked her if she was from Sweden.

"Yes. But I came here many, many years ago."

"What part?" I asked.

"Dalarna ... but not where they make the horses," she said. "It's in the south."

"My people come from Smaland," I said. "Where the poor people come from."

"That's even farther south," she said. "The soil isn't much good down there."

While we were waiting for the band to take the stage, I heard a woman in conversation with a friend. "Last year they had a big bonfire in the courtyard. It was very congested. They decided to spread things out this year."

Before the band got going I saw several elderly people enter the room, and I vacated my seat. There was quite a bit of tuning up, last-minute advice flowing back and forth, before the band finally launched into a pleasant medium-tempo tune. Then they played another one in exactly the same vein.

"It sounds like the last tune, only played in reverse," my friend said under his breath.

"And if you listen carefully, you can hear the words 'Paul is dead,'" I replied.

There was a certain ambient appeal to the music, but perhaps no need to actually sit and watch the performance--though I was a little worried that one of the women in the front row was going to nick herself in the throat with her free-swinging bow. The music would undoubtedly sound just as good from a distance, lending atmosphere to the halls and rooms downstairs and throughout the mansion.

Back on the first floor I struck up a conversation with a woodcarver who happened to be sitting there with a piece of wood and a short knife. He uses birch, he told me, and keeps it moist by cutting down a tree and burying it in the snow. Depending on the diameter, you can get from four to twelve spoons out of a section, he told me.

"Do you always harvest your own trees?" I asked.

"No. I have some reliable sources. But deer hunting season is a good time to get wood, and I'm a hunter. And there's no shortage of birch trees in northern Minnesota." He smiled.

He had an array of spoons sitting on a shelf beside him, all of them different in shape or size.

"How long would it take you to make a spoon like this?" I asked, picking up a specimen with a rib running up the back.

"Maybe three hours," he said. "You've got to cut away quite a bit of wood to get to the spoon."

"Do you have a shop somewhere?"

"No," he replied. "I sell a few things on-line." He paused for an instant, and then added: " People from all over the world buy and sell spoons on-line."

Then he smiled ingenuously, and I got the feeling he didn't much care if anyone bought his spoons or not. Perhaps the market was secure, or maybe he had a day job at a hedge fund? It was obvious, in any case, that he enjoyed making spoons. How much do they cost? I have no idea.

Back at the institute's modern addition, we wandered the gift shop looking at knit caps with flaps, attractive pieces of blown glass from Boda and Orrefers, and dish towels decorated in garish greens and oranges.   

Then it was back to the car. Avoiding the major thoroughfares once again, we took 28th Street west all the way to Lake of the Isles and then circled the lake on our way to Wirth Parkway. Quite a few of the mansions on the lake were decked with lights, as usual, but the effect was more subdued than I remember from previous years. The predominate color was white.

When we got back to the house I pulled a bottle of aquavit out of the liquor cabinet, and we had some fun trying to figure out how many times it had crossed the equator on a ship. If you look through the bottle you can see the back side of the front label, where the dates when the booze was loaded onto and off of the ship have been recorded.

"It tastes like pine trees," I said.

"I don't really care for it," my friend said. You can have mine.  

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Rose in Winter

Winter is already here. But a more serious episode of the same familiar story was set to arrive over the weekend—first five to eight inches of snow, then a drop in temperature to -20 and beyond.
Not a super-big deal. But it was enough to keep us at home on Friday night, even though we had tickets to a concert by the Rose Ensemble at a church in St. Paul.

Maybe that was the thing: the image of snaking home through the snow after the concert, with pile-ups left and right, along I-94. Maybe the bridge would collapse while we were crossing the Mississippi? That's a long way down. And those narrow cruciform churches where they schedule the events! Bad sight lines, wooden pews. Ugh! Better to stay home, light a fire in the fireplace, pull out my new (used) copy of Julio Cortázar's Diary of Andrés Fava, and enjoy a quiet evening as the snow piles up on the yew bushes outside the living room window. The price we paid for the tickets might just as well be considered a year-end donation. Right?

Yet checking the website, I noticed that the Rose Ensemble was doing the same show at a church in Bloomington on Sunday afternoon. So we drove down just to see if they'd let us in with our unused tickets from Friday night. The temperature was -7. Not bad enough to keep the fans away, I suspected. All the same, I was pretty sure they'd have some room in the church somewhere. And over the years I've noticed there's something open and friendly about the organization, the exacting standards of the musicianship notwithstanding. Maybe because I've been to so many of the free programs they put on at public libraries. Maybe because I'm impressed by the efforts the Rose Ensemble makes to perform in smaller towns throughout the state, from Hibbing and Albert Lea to Detroit Lakes and Winona.

"I have a problem," I said to the man behind the cash box.

"How can I help you?"

"We have tickets to the Friday show..."

"Of course we can fit you in. I see you were in section B." And he scribbled something on my print-out with a Sharpie. And that was that.

The concert was very fine. A few familiar faces amid the group—founder Jordan Sramek, basses Mark Dietrich and Jake Endres, alto Clara Osowski from the Source Song Festival and Consortium Carissimi. The others were new to me, though they were uniformly on the mark. 

The compositions ranged  from medieval plainchant to Palestrina and Praetorius.  These are the names we hear again and again, along with Machaut, Dufay, Lassos, while seldom recognizing any particular composition as one we've heard before. Throw in a few numbers by abbess Hildegard von Bingen (all of which sound like the same number...but nice) and the world premier of a piece by Victor Zupanc, and you've got a varied and stimulating program.

It's the kind of music in which each voice must stand alone, hit the right pitch, blend, be expressive, hold back, contribute to the whole. There is no place to hide, and these musicians can do it.

As so often seems to happen, I found myself seated next to a fidgetter.  The woman flipped the pages of her program, underlined things, wrote notes in the margins—in short, did everything except listen to the music! I felt like grabbing her by the collar and saying, "Do you even like music? Why did you come?"

But when the Rose Ensemble's manager, Peter Carlson, gave a little speech before intermission about charitable contributions (he was also the man behind the cash box who had let us in) the woman whipped out her checkbook and wrote a check. (Five dollars? Or five-hundred? I couldn't see.) I guess she likes music in one way or another. (Sorry to say, it took her about five minutes of fumbling before she got the checkbook back in her purse.)

But this irritant did little to undermine the loveliness of the performance. And who knows? Maybe the woman was really very interested in the music. When she heard:

O frondens virga,
in tua nobilitate stans
sicut aurora procedit:
 nunc gaude et letare
et nos debiles dignare
a mala consuetudine liberare
atque manum tuam porrige
ad erigendum nos.
Perhaps she wanted to know what it meant.

O blooming branch,
you stand upright in your nobility,
as breaks the dawn on high:
Rejoice now and be glad,
and deign to free us, frail and weakened,
from the wicked habits of our age;
stretch forth your hand
to lift us up aright.

Frankly, I don't think so. But it doesn't matter. The beauty of the voices and the harmonies transcend meaning.

But is that true? Poets of the time loved to exploit the play on words between "virga" (blooming branch) and "virgin" (which is blooming... what?)  Perhaps I was just being a lazy sensualist rather than a serious-minded witness to the faith by ignoring the printed page. Still, at a concert, the sound is the thing. And one's neighbors in the pew ought not to be disturbed.

All I know is that there was still light in the sky as we drove north on Highway 100 toward Golden Valley after the show. The concert was good. The performers, and the organization itself, was generous-hearted. No one could ask for more. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Arrival - Time on Our Hands

Considering the scope of its premise—aliens touch down simultaneously at twelve places widely scattered around the world in spaceships that look like huge orthopedic shoe inserts—The Arrival is a surprisingly small-scale and well-behaved production. The drama is focused on the fact that no one can figure out why they're here or what they want.

The U.S. military enlists crack linguist Amy Adams to break the ice, as it were, with the contingent of aliens who have appeared suddenly in rural Montana. She's accompanied on this tête-à-tête by physicist Jeremy Renner and a collection of military types who are itching to blast the intrusive pod to kingdom come. This storyline is intercut with mysterious and seemingly irrelevant "flashbacks" to Adams's personal life and memories of interactions with her daughter, who appears to have died before reaching adulthood.

Adams and Renner, bucking the establishment every step of the way, succeed in establishing a dialog of sorts with the creatures inside the pod, who express themselves not in words but in complex and attractive rings of messy ink that they squirt squid-like onto the transparent interface deep within their pod. 

 At first world leaders seem to be working together, trading information about what they've learned, but it isn't long before cooperation between superpowers comes to an end and the Americans must resort to satellite photography and other intelligence sources to see what's going on in other parts of the world. The fear is ever present that someone (China? Russia?) is going to start taking potshots at the pods.

It would be unconscionable to say more about the plot, except that it's more interesting than I've made it sound here, due to elements that I cannot divulge. However, it is safe to say that viewers looking for an action flick on the order of Independence Day or Starship Troopers are likely to be disappointed. The sky is often gray, and the tone of the film is brooding and largely personal. Yet Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and his crew do a good job of establishing a sense of profound foreboding, as if the end of civilization as we know it is just one diplomatic gaff away.

As I watched The Arrival, I was reminded from time to time, but for different reasons, of 2001: a Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Interstellar, and even Gravity. (After all, both Adams and Sandra Bullock are grieving mothers.) It's the kind of film that gets better as you stand in the parking lot ten minutes after its over, trying to figure out what actually happened.

(Spoiler alert.) Yet in the end, though the message of the film is worthwhile, its logic doesn't bear close scrutiny. The idea is that past and future are less "linear" than we imagine. In fact, if we learned to use the alien language rather than our own, we might eventually be able to "see" the future. The question then becomes, would we be able to alter it? And if not, would we be eager to participate in events to which we already know the outcome?

Such reflections are stimulating but ultimately sterile, like an M.C. Escher lithograph. The aliens seem to have asked and answered them already—otherwise, they wouldn't have bothered to pay us a visit. But I guess you and I will have to figure them out on our own.


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Literature and Empathy

In 2013, two social scientists from the New School published the results of a study suggesting that reading literary fiction made people more empathetic. A recent study has failed to find the same correlation.


When I read the original story, I cringed. In the first place, there is no need to pinpoint a value to reading beyond the pleasure people get from the reading itself. It also struck me that such a study would be difficult, if not impossible, to carry out with true scientific rigor.

It would not be sufficient simply to compare the responses of readers and non-readers to a bank of questions designed to identify empathetic characteristics. That might "prove" that readers were more empathetic, but not that the reading itself made them so. A more likely explanation would be that empathetic people naturally take pleasure in the emotional content of books, whereas those who aren't empathetic have little desire to share the daily ups and downs of characters who, after all, don't really exist.

To prove the point scientifically would require an large, undifferentiated pool of people who had never read anything. Half would be given novels. The other half would be deprived of them. Years later, tests would be given to see where the greater empathy lay.

I seriously doubt if the studies in question were actually conducted along those lines.

Then again, we ought to ask ourselves: Is empathy always a good thing? Where does it rank on the hierarchy of qualities in comparison to honesty, perspicacity, ingenuity, drive, and tact, for example? Are there situations in which empathy would be out of place—a war tribunal, for example? Can empathy be harmful to the individual who feels it?

Is it appropriate to become annoyed if a friend wants to share our pain when we're doing our best to forget about it?

As I ponder these issues, I'm reminded of the surveys that crop up here and there in the sketchbooks of the Swiss novelist and playwright Max Frisch. Opening the volume from 1966 to 1971 I hit immediately on a questionnaire about hope, which I've shortened for the present purpose:

1. How often must a particular hope (say, a political one) fail to materialize before you give it up. And can you do this without immediately forming another hope?

2. Do you sometimes envy other living creatures who seem to be able to live without hope (for example, fish in an aquarium)?

3. When some private hope is at last realized, how long as a rule do you feel it was a valid hope, that is, that its realization has brought you as much as you had been expecting from it all these years?

4. What hope have you now given up?

5. In regard to the world situation, do you hope:
a. that reason will prevail?
b. that a miracle will occur?
c. that everything will go on as before?

6. What fills you with hope:
a. nature?
b. art?
c. science?
d. the history of mankind?

7. Assuming that you distinguish between your own hopes and those that others (parents, teachers, friends, lovers) place in you, when are you more depressed: when the former or when the latter are not fulfilled?

8. What do you hope to gain from travel?

9. When you know that someone is incurably ill, do you arouse hopes in him that you know to be false?

But we're getting off the track here. The thing about literature, I think, is that it expands our horizons and allows us to experience all manner of things without really suffering the consequences personally. The most important lesson we take from it, perhaps, is the one I got from Jack Burden in freshman English while reading All the King's Men: "Whatever you live, it's life."

In other words, as far as life is concerned, there are no models or standards. Each one of us cuts a new path, good or bad, light or dark, most likely dappled but perhaps with a cool breeze blowing through it.

And it just might be that reading Lord Jim or My Antonia has helped us find a better and a more worthy one.

To which Max Frisch might ask: "Worthy? How so?"  

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Saturday on the Town

Sometimes it's not so bad when a plan falls through.

We'd planned to see the exhibit of Reformation Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. (First time out of Germany in 300 years!) But the more we read about Luther, the less compelling that idea sounded. On the morning we were planning to visit I had trouble securing tickets on the museum website, and we decided to scotch the idea entirely—at least for the time being.

So, an empty Saturday yawned in front of us.

Our first stop was to the Bell Museum of Natural History, which is scheduled to close permanently in a few weeks. (They're moving to a new building on the St. Paul Campus.) Being on campus again brought up a few vague memories, mostly pleasant. The very idea of being a student is pleasant. Hanging out with your friends, reading books, working part-time. (Gee. It sounds a lot like today.)

As we approached the Bell Museum, I was reminded that I took E. Adamson Hoebel's final anthropology class in the auditorium there. For many years that hallowed space was also the venue for the University Film Society, where I first saw Jules and Jim, Pierrot le Fou, Chimes at Midnight, Tree of the Wooden Clogs, L'Avventura, and many other classics in an era when a film screening was the only way you could see a rare or European film. 

We requested the senior rate at the front desk, and then I said, "I used to take little kids on tours through this place. Is that good for an additional discount?"

Both of the women behind the counter were barely out of their teens. "We get quite a few former tour guides through here," one of them said, smiling. "maybe we could come up with something."

"Well, it would be pretty hard to verify," I said. "Anyway, we're happy to chip in."

By a stroke of luck, the Minnesota Ornithological Union was holding their annual Paper Session in the auditorium. We're not members, but the man in the lobby said, "Go on in and listen to a few of the presentations. If you find it worthwhile, pay on your way out."

I looked at the schedule:

Tracking Movement Patterns of Common Terns in the Great Lakes Region
Contaminant Research on Loon's Relating to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
Wastewater Stabilization Pond Birding Access Initiative
Owls to Orchids: Magic and Mystery in our Northern Bogs
Genetic Insights into the Evolution of Red-winged Blackbirds
Mapping Change and Minnesota Biodiversity Atlas: Citizen Science and Museum Practice in the Digital Age
Kirtland's Warbler Population Status in the Upper Midwest

I mean, it might be interesting. Or not.

A session had just concluded, but stepping inside the auditorium, I got the impression that most of the seats were already spoken for. We went upstairs to take a look at the famous dioramas, only to find the halls clogged with birders chatting in twos and threes or looking at the booths that had been set up by a variety of ornithological and "outdoor" organizations. 

Among them we spotted an old family friend, Chet Meyers, at a booth for a society dedicated to bringing back the red-headed woodpecker.

"We saw a red-headed woodpecker on the trail up into the hills at Sherburne last summer," I said.

"We've been working to get a nesting pair up there," he said, "and there's also one on the nearby Mahnomen Trail."

The woman behind the table for the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden urged me to take one of their newsletters. I declined, telling her that I was very familiar with it, because I had designed it. That idea didn't quite sink in, but little matter. We were soon discussing great horned owls, acorn flour, and buckthorn removal like old friends.

At the Sax-Zim Bog display I asked the man behind the table what he thought of the Trailside Restaurant in Meadowlands.

"It's OK, " he replied, "but I usually go to Wilbert's over in Cotton."

Then I said, "I've never seen a boreal chickadee. Do you have any ideas about where I might get lucky?"

"Sure," he said. Then he grabbed a map of the bog, which extends over many square miles, and proceeded to mark three places that could hardly miss.

The booths were interesting and informative, but the dioramas were better. I have looked at them many times, though I see a lot more now than I did when I was twenty—the wolves, the bear, the caribou, but also the smaller displays with martin and fisher, rough-legged hawk, woodcock, lynx. I looked lovingly at the marshland exhibits that bored me forty years ago, largely because at the time I didn't recognize any of the birds. 

And I looked very fondly at the landscapes rendered in the background to the dioramas because they were not only intrinsically beautiful, nut because I now recognize many of them, having been there, and because winter is approaching and pine woods and gray cliffs and open water are the things many of us will soon be yearning for.

Our next stop was for lunch at Obento-ya, a Japanese bistro on Como Avenue in the Van Cleve neighborhood north of Dinkytown—a neighborhood previously associated in my mind largely with the onion rings at nearby Manning's Bar, and the derelict grain elevator with the word Bunge on top where young urban adventurers injure themselves with some degree of regularity nowadays. 

Then it was off to the St. Paul campus of the university, with a few stops in between: first at Potter's Pasties, which occupies a truly bohemian space in the basement of a convenience store on E. Como, and then at the Sisu cross-country ski and sauna shop on Eustis to look at the back-country skis. (Winter is just around the corner.) 

As we approached the Ag campus we also happened to pass the site of the new Bell Museum, still under construction. But our destination was the Goldstein Gallery, tucked away on the third floor of McNeal Hall. A forty-year design retrospective was supposed to open at 1:30, but at 1:45 the gallery was still dark, and we made our way back to the car. On another day I might have been irritated or disappointed, but looking into the gallery spaces through the window, I could see there wasn't much to the exhibit, and the view from the third floor of the building out across the state fairgrounds was superb.

The sun had come out, and suddenly it didn't seem like such a big deal to hightail it down to the Barnes and Noble in Galleria, at the opposite end of town, to hear Michael Chabon read. 

That B&N has been located on two floors of the same high-class suburban mini-mall for decades, but it recently moved to a different space across the hall on the lower level to become one of three "flagship" Barnes and Noble stores in the country offering a new concept—bookstore plus restaurant; the others are in suburbs of New York City and San Francisco. So the woman on the floor told me.

"We have the advantage in that we've been in business for years, know the stock, and have a well-trained staff. The other two stores are starting from scratch."

She also liked the food in the restaurant. "There's nothing frozen. Everything's made from scratch."

I was surprised to see that far more space in the store's music section was devoted to vinyl LPs than to CDs. There were even two turntables on sale! Was Gibt? Yet the sight of them made me want to hook up my own turntable again.

The revamped store opened just last Tuesday—too early to develop much of a remainder section. But I must say they did well to snag Chabon as their inaugural author. (Don't you think?)

I have never read anything by Chabon, though Hilary is a big fan, and Wonder Boys is one of my favorite movies. He read briefly and then conducted a long Q &A full of humor, insight, humility, charm. Enough, perhaps, to fill a second blog....