Monday, August 14, 2017

River Rambles

Casting decades of tradition into the dust heap, Hilary and I cancelled our BWCA reservation, which would have entailed a six-hour drive north into three days of likely rain, and headed south at a leisurely pace along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi—no plans, no reservations, just maps, a trunk full of camping gear, and a back seat full of cheese, nuts, Oreos, and freeze-dried meals.

The little towns that cling to the hillsides below the bluffs can have a quaint, nostalgic feel, but they look suspiciously like junky, dying villages sustaining themselves on motorcyclists, a few weekends of summer tourists, and the more reliable custom of well-healed exurbanites with summer homes nearby. Stockholm has perhaps succeeded as well as any of its neighbors in elevating itself to the level of genuine charm, and we turned inland onto its prominent side street to get a few sweet rolls at the bakery. 

I rang the bell on the counter and a few minutes later a young woman came rushing in the screen door from the café across the garden courtyard. There were maybe twelve loaves of very attractive bread sitting on a counter, with a hand-written sign nearby that said Please Don't Touch the Bread.

As we sat in the car eating our mid-morning snack we watched two elderly ladies wandering very slowly from one side of the street to the other, taking pictures of the art gallery, the pie shop, a local museum, and a few of the private homes. 

Back on main street, we stopped into a used book store that I'd never seen before. The door was open but the front room was illuminated only by the dim light coming in through the window. A few of the shelves were lined with old books sitting at oblique angles, but the room was so dank I felt no desire to examine the collection carefully. Many of the shelves contained old paint brushes, light bulbs, and other pieces of junk.

"Have you seen enough?" Hilary said almost immediately, eager to escape the miasma. I had.

Back on the sidewalk, we looked across the street at the beautiful stone facade of J. Ingebretsen, where sparkling Swedish imports were no doubt artfully arranged along the shelves. But we pushed on, lured by the wildflowers along the roadsides—Queen Anne's lace, knapweed, sunflowers of several stripes, and wild chicory. The highway rises and falls, narrow but largely free of traffic, with Lake Pepin often in full view down below to the west. Gray skies moving in from the northwest. That's the weather we're trying to escape from.

In Alma we stopped for lunch at Pier 4, which has a screened-in porch overlooking the lock and dam and also, right under the terrace, the railroad tracks. Four trains went by while we were eating. Very LOUD.

I felt obliged to order the specialty of the house—a sandwich called the Horseshoe ($7.95). They put a piece of grilled toast on a plate and load it with pulled pork, then a heap of french fries smothered in good ole Wisconsin cheese mixed with Spotted Cow beer.

By this time you can be sure that piece of toast is as flat and soggy as an antique insert in a tennis shoe.

"I'll have the Horseshoe," I said when the waitress arrived. "But can I have the french fries on the side?"

She gave me a friendly smirk. "Well, you could...but that would defeat the purpose." (Which was what?)

"Don't worry. I'll mix a few of them back in."

"Well, in that case, I guess it's O.K."

Hilary ordered the lunch platter that included ribs, pulled pork, and three sides ($8.95).

The baked beans weren't bad, but the meat was chewy, to say the least. (So much for regional cuisine!)

We stopped at a folk art park on Prairie Mood Road south of Cochrane, but I was more impressed by the shape of the hills behind the farm across the highway. It's gorgeous countryside. 

Birding is unlikely to be exciting in early August, though we'd seen a raft of a hundred-odd pelicans floating just off shore from the landing in Maiden Rock. Yet when we arrived at Trempealeau National Wildlife Sanctuary, we were rewarded with the sight of a bird I'd never seen before: four or five common gallinules were frolicking amid the lily pads twenty yards out from the dock at the visitor's center.  

At nearby Perrot State Park I rigged up a tarp at our favorite campsite (#25) just before the drizzle set in. 

I say "our favorite" because we camped in the same spot in May, and were entertained by a cardinal who battled his image in the side-view mirrors of our car all day long. He was still there. But now that mating season was over, he was content merely to look at the mysterious intruders rather than attacking them. He also hopped across the campsite a few times, perhaps looking for a handout.

"Remember me?" I said.

The next morning it was bright, clear, and cool. We rented a canoe and took a two-hour paddle up one branch of the Trempealeau River and down the other, which allowed us to get out into the midst of the bluffs without exposing ourselves to the breadth or force of the Mississippi itself.

In search of the opposite effect, we then climbed Perrot Peak. The view from the top was superb but it had been a steep scramble and we didn't want to return the way we'd come, so we continued along the ridge, not quite sure where we were headed. As luck would have it, the trail eventually wound its way back to the path we'd arrived on.

The nature center by the canoe landing has a fine little museum chronicling the history of human habitation in the vicinity going back to the paleolithic. Indian mounds are scattered throughout the park. Nicholas Perrot built a fort here in 1685--the first such European outpost in the region.

Later that afternoon we came upon the Mississippi's largest paddlewheeler, the American Queen, in Prairie Du Chien. There's nothing like a river boat to evoke the colorful history of the region. The boat had been docked there all day, and a few elderly couples were sitting on their balconies reading magazines.

One member of the crew, a young black man, was leaning over the rail looking bored, and I asked him where their next stop would be. He didn't know. But when he answered, I noticed that all of his lower teeth were capped with gold.  

We got to chatting with a man from San Antonio who was reboarding the vessel.

"I've been a "black powder" expert since 1984," he told us. He and his wife had been on similar trips up the Columbia River and on the Mississippi north of New Orleans. "Down there the levees are so high, you can't see the countryside."

He told us how wonderful the accommodations were, and quite reasonable! He and his wife were paying $3 thousand apiece for the seven-day trip from Minneapolis down to Keokuk and back. Entertainment every night.

"And the food is outstanding," he added.

I told him we had been canoeing out in the river that morning ($15) and had flushed six kingfishers, one sandhill crane, and quite a few bald eagles. Then we'd climbed to the top of the bluffs. It was 4:30 in the afternoon, and we had no idea where we were going to spent the night. 

I wasn't bragging. But we were swapping stories, weren't we?

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Shooting the Breeze

I call it an idle afternoon, though I know I ought to be doing something productive. One onerous task that I've started to work on is to finish off the leftovers sitting around in the fridge. I compounded the challenge the other day, when it suddenly occurred to me that summer was vanishing and we hadn't yet made a supply of pesto.

It was a beautiful day, as I recall, the sky was clear, the air was very cool. I'd gotten up early, and the thought suddenly popped into my head—pesto time. Not the time to eat it, but to make it. This would entail a trip to the downtown farmer's market, a mere twelve minutes away, to pick up a few big clumps of fresh basil. Well, Friday is a very good time to visit. You can park right next to the stalls and crowds are non-existent, though quite a few growers and vendors are there.

I left the house at 7:55, made a brief stop at the bridge over Bassett Creek to measure the water clarity (100+), and continued down Plymouth Avenue with the delicate piano sounds of Emannuel Chambrier completing the scene. (It occurred to me, as I drifted past Homewood Studios, that Chambrier has touches of Poulenc's zip, Satie's dream-like atmosphere, and Ravel's classic structure. He ought to be included among that stellar group of younger composers: the Godfather of Les Six.)

Weaving my way into the parking lot between a Metro Mobility driver who was helping a passenger disembark and a fork-lift driver unloading a pallet of potatoes, I pulled into a spot alongside the flower stall that's been occupied by the same cheerfully spacy merchant for as long as I can remember.

As I climbed the concrete steps to the middle aisle I looked up and found myself face to face with some of the most attractive bundles of basil I'd ever seen, bright green and glistening, no doubt from a recent spray of water. Though I usually wander a bit, evaluating the various products, I didn't hesitate to purchase three bundles for $1 apiece.

All would have been well, had I not lingered, coming upon some nice eggplants  and a carton of red onions. (I love red onions in salads, but do we really need five of them?) Then there were the sweet potatoes...

I made the pesto later that day, spooned it into ziplock bags, and tossed them into the freezer. We took care of the eggplant over the weekend by breading and baking them, then topping them with a tomato sauce that made use of some yellow onions. (Another purchase that I neglected to mention.)

So here I sit, wolfing down the remains of a quinoa salad from CostCo while thumbing through Thoreau's journals. It's his 200th birthday, more or less. We are sometimes given the impression that Thoreau was a woodsy loner who looked upon hardworking farmers as deluded materialists, but in fact he took a interest in all aspects of village and country life, and had a healthy respect for anyone who attended carefully to nature's ways whether wild or domestic. On February 22, 1852, he wrote:
"After having read various books on various subjects for some months, I take up a report on Farms by a committee of Middlesex Husbandmen, and read of the number of acres of bog that some farmer has redeemed, and the number of rods of stone wall that he has built, and the number of tons of hay he now cuts, or of bushels of corn or potatoes he raises there, and I feel as if I had got my foot down on to the solid and sunny earth, the basis of all philosophy, and poetry, and religion even. I have faith that the man who re­deemed some acres of land the past summer redeemed also some parts of his character. I shall not expect to find him ever in the almshouse or the prison. He is, in fact, so far on his way to heaven. When he took the farm there was not a grafted tree on it, and now he realizes something handsome from the sale of fruit. These, in the absence of other facts, are evidence of a certain moral worth.
The beauty of Thoreau's Journal is that you can dip in anywhere and are likely to find thoughts of poetic or philosophical interest, well expressed but not diluted by the desire to embroider or inflate to a loftier level.  

If I were taking ten books to a desert island, the Journal would be one of them. I'm grateful that New York Review Books has issued a splendid paperback edition, edited by Damion Searls, that runs to a mere 667 pages. I doubt if it contains one tenth of the original, but it will do me for a lifetime.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Love and Death - Brahms' Requiem

Friends who attended tell me that it was a good performance. I wouldn't know. I was there, too, but I was standing up high, in the back, with the sounds moving away from me at every level. From that vantage point the performance seemed rich, nuanced, profound. But in the intensity and alertness of the moment, suddenly everything sounded better and more interesting.

We'd been rehearing the piece twice a week for four weeks--150 singers, seasoned veterans and novices alike--and we'd also rehearsed with the orchestra that afternoon. Like everyone else, I'd been going over my part at home, working on those elusive German vowels, straining my voice in pursuit of the very high notes, trying to match the words to the notes in the furious fugal sections, penciling in the moods here and there: "consoling," "scornful," "scary but march-like."   

The reality remained unmistakable: there were too many things to lasso and corral at the same time. We'd leave the hall on the West Bank after every rehearsal—Hilary and I along with friends Becca, Debbie, and Emma—in a state of mild elation, having focused our attention as well as we could all evening, but the talk as we crossed the foot bridge to the parking lot was always the same—things we needed to work on, things we couldn't keep up with, notes we couldn't find, much less hit.

It was a feeling akin to guilt. Mom asked you to take out the garbage, but you didn't. But you meant to. Maybe later. Yes, but later it will be too late.

Director Matt Mehaffey knows all the ins and outs of motivation, and the lack thereof. He tactfully (and sometimes not so tactfully) implored us to improve our diction, learn our parts, open our jaws, and attend to the dynamic markings, sugar-coating the bitter pill of criticism with amusing references to Darth Vader, "Stairway to Heaven," The Swedish Chef (a character on the Muppets, a friend told me later) and other lowbrow cultural icons.

On another level of interest, he also urged us to familiarize ourselves with the texts Brahms had chosen. Though drawn from Biblical sources,  they offered a grave and sophisticated handling of the grieving process and the hopes the faithful might entertain. There were fiery passages and plaintive passages, beatific sections and hell-bent-for-leather romps. In short, the Requiem was a cornucopia of emotions if not a game-plan for salvation.  
A glance at the translated texts served to underscore the truth of these remarks. But would probing those depths (which would take a long time) really improve the pitch or quality of my voice?

I asked myself more than once: "Am I really enjoying this? Am I really contributing anything?" My answer to the first question was always yes, albeit a qualified and reluctant yes. And as for the second, I couldn't believe I was that much worse than some of the other singers who had signed up for the four-week program. I just needed to work harder.

During the course of the regimen, I drew support from a succession of singing companions—that is to say, whoever happened to end up sitting beside me in the back row. At the first rehearsal I met Alan, an optometrist from Brookings, S.D. Though an experienced singer, he hadn't sung in a choir in recent years.  On another occasion it was Jordan, a student from Brainerd who also sang in Matt's choir during the school year. And during the last week, I landed next to a gentleman of Dutch extraction named Ben who had just moved to town from NW Iowa, where for many years he had been not only the choral director, but a professor of choral directing, at a small college.  

During our final week of rehearsals, two thoughts often crossed my mind simultaneously: a) things are really starting to come together, and b) I have never seen these pages before in my life. Yet that couldn't be true; my pencil marks were all over the score. The effect was uncanny. 

The final trial (as if this were some kind of medieval contest out of the pages of Chretien de Troyes!) came during the afternoon rehearsal with the orchestra on the day of the performance. It was a long rehearsal. The lights were hot. Many of us in the back row had no place to sit down, and were forced to stand, largely motionless, during long stretches when Matt was discussing details with members of the orchestra. As we finally marched off the risers, I felt that I was coming off the trail from an arduous backpacking trip. 

During the two-hour gap between rehearsal and performance a bunch of us sat out on the terrace talking about anything but music. Debbie and her husband, Jim, were leaving the next day on an extended road trip that would take them eventually to Newfoundland. Dave showed me some photos he'd taken on his phone of the new freeway bridge over the St. Croix River. We discussed the creative environment at nearby House of Balls, where his wife, Lisa, would be playing the saxophone, perhaps at the very moment that we were intoning "All flesh is grass..."

We finally made our way back to the rehearsal rooms, where people were knitting or huddled in small groups muttering like passengers in the hold of a ship making its way to a new world, or like soldiers in a landing craft about to meet their fate on the beach.

The calm before the storm
The performance itself was the opposite of an ordeal. The robust sounds of the orchestra reminded us that we were parts of a very large ensemble, where the quality of our singing would probably count for more than its volume.  And during the thunderous sections Matt urged us on with a force far more dramatic than anything he'd exhibited during rehearsals, as if he were wrestling with an imaginary lion. No stopping, everything forward, I heard harmonic relationships that I'd never heard before. I felt that I was singing inside the piece. It was a good feeling. And with all the sound moving away from me toward the audience, I was hearing a slightly subdued and etherealized Requiem, a personalized version, tenors only admitted.

Many details from my part continued to surface at odd moments in the days that followed. For example, I often found myself humming a gentle passage from the fifth movement that goes like this:

It sort of flutters out of nowhere at the end of a measure, like a bleating lamb, descends pleasantly, pauses, comes to rest at a lower level. In a later iteration an additional murmuring off-beat landing is provided. No one would call this passage the heart and soul of the Requiem. And the altos have the same line a little earlier. But it's a good example of the deft poetic touches Brahms has distributed throughout the voices, which for the listener can easily become obliterated by the more dramatic parts of the composition.

Just this morning I deleted the emails I'd saved from the Oratorio Society carrying titles like "more home practice resources" and "Concert Day Coming!" Parts of my brain are now drifting free or being reassigned in new directions. It's refreshing.

I'm tempted to give the Requiem another listen—I mean the professional version with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the solo roles and Otto Klemperer at the podium—but I'm afraid it might discombobulate the little angels still fluttering around in my head.  

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Soo Vac Gallery - Liza Sylvestre

It was a glorious evening to be outside—or inside. Our niece's new show was opening at the Soo Vac gallery. We went.

So many new buildings have gone up in the Lyn-Lake neighborhood since we lived there that I had no idea where, or what, the Soo Vac Gallery was. To judge from the address, it seemed to be on an alley at the edge of the greenway, behind Bryant Bowl, and I imagined that we'd end up parking several blocks away, maybe right in front of our old apartment on 32nd and Aldrich! (Our rent at that two-bedroom place was $185/month, which should give you some idea how long ago that was.)

I was shocked to discover when we arrived that  the gallery has a parking lot. And it was largely empty! We pulled up right next to the front door and went inside. We said hello to some friends and relatives, but I soon found myself engaged by a drawing on the wall consisting of a text in minute handwriting, some of which had been deliberately crossed out.

I knew what it was immediately—the visual representation of what a deaf person hears. Some things, but not others. The drawing itself, considered as an artifact, was attractive, but I knew that to get the intended effect, it would be necessary to read the whole thing. Only by doing so would I move beyond the obvious "point"—when you're deaf it's tough to get by, much less engage in meaningful personal interactions—and get a sense of  the endless challenge and fatigue and discouragement and exclusion that such a condition engenders. And while reading it, I would no doubt struggle to resist the ever-present temptation to simply tune out and start thinking about something else.

But several elements were working in my favor. Unlike a genuine conversation, I could read at my own pace without ever having to say, "What? I didn't catch that? Could you speak more slowly?" And because my interlocutor wasn't actually present, there was no pressing need for me to comprehend the speech well enough to respond. Most important of all, perhaps, was the fact that, as near as I could make out, the text was interesting.

Liza seemed to be describing aspects of her personal life, her love for her boyfriend Luis, swings in emotion. Were little of it came through clearly enough to comprehend. At one point I spotted the words hypodermic and prednisone. I asked Liza about it later and she told me it referred to a treatment she took as a teenager to reboot her autoimmune system, which seemed to lie at the root of her continuing hearing loss.  

As I began my journey through this fractured narrative landscape I was reminded of a remark my brother, who at that time was involved in cyber-cryptanalysis, once made: the English language is 65 percent redundant. What he meant, I guess, was that if you gave him 35 percent of a message, he could figure out the rest. I wasn't finding that to be the case. But I was soon thinking about the work of the Greek poet Sappho, also emotional, also evocative, also a bundle of fragments for the most part, though not intentionally.

                                if that is permitted to mortal women.
                                now this in your heart ... would free me from all my worries
                                                ... dewy banks  ...  all night long

Amid Liza's script I came across "Painful"... "held way, way down"... "really edit my writing critically" and occasionally a longer passage, for example: "I keep meeting people lately, usually women, who are so tense that if they relaxed something inside of them would fall apart."

Near the bottom of the page I came across a phrase that surprised me momentarily: "I am in love with my own story and the drama of it, even if melancholy..."

As it appears here, in isolation, that remark might sound narcissistic, but considered in the context of the entire piece, and of Liza's life and career, it struck me as naked and deeply honest. It's the motive for metaphor, the root of artistic expression--love, drama, life, melancholy.

The room was filling with people, some chairs were set up, Soo Vac executive director Carolyn Payne said of few words of introduction, and Liza gave a brief talk about her work, and about herself. Her central point of concern, she said, was that she lost her hearing only gradually, and therefore doesn't identify with the deaf community, yet the difficulties she experiences communicating with "normal" people—difficulties that her interlocutors can hardly imagine—set her apart from them, too. The works on display, which also included several sophisticated video pieces, were attempts to help others gain a better sense of what it feels like to be forever scrambling to pick up nuances of expression that most listeners take in without the slightest effort.

But if Liza's work were merely informative or didactic, it would be useful, perhaps, but not deeply engaging. It seems to me that alongside the drama of exclusion and the desire to connect, another internal conflict can often be felt, between the manual dexterity and formal sophistication that allow Liza to create beautiful things, and a deep-rooted anguish that rejects anything that's merely pleasing. As I listened, I was reminded of a remark Monet made in one of his letters late in life:

I have to work a lot in order to manage to convey what I am seeking ... and more than ever, easy things achieved at one stroke disgust me.

No one with the slightest familiarity with Liza's work would accuse her of skimping on strokes. On the contrary, her work displays remarkable and seemingly effortless line control. A series of black-and-white line drawings hang on the wall in another part of the gallery. I suppose they were inspired conceptually by aspects of hearing loss, but they look like landscapes to me. Yet they aren't the kind of hills and dales you'd be comfortable cavorting across. They might just as easily be arctic glaciers riddled with crevasses...

As I sat in the car after the show, waiting for my riders to complete their Minnesota-style goodbyes, I enjoyed watching the crowd milling around on the landing outside the gallery. There was Liza's dad, Paul, chasing her son Ellis up and down the handicap ramp, and her sister, Sarah, holding her own new daughter, Ester. Young people I didn't recognize, Liza's friends and also friends of the gallery, no doubt. It was a colorful scene. The cool evening air was just arriving, and I suspect the only melancholy Liza was feeling was due to the impossibility of giving each and every one of her well-wishers the personal attention they deserved.  
(Thanks to Richard Sennott, Asli Falay Calkivik, and Hilary Toren for photos.) 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Come Up to the Lab

The laboratory is nestled in the side of the Mississippi river bank on a quasi-island, ensconced beyond the gray metal cages of a battery of Excel Energy transformers. The signs at the driveway leading down to it say Private Property, Keep Out. It's much easier to spot from the opposite side of the river--a boxy four-story building with banners hanging off it: Earth Water Life in a slightly rounded san serif font that's long been popular in the scientific community. Someone with good eyesight or binoculars might make out the sign adjacent: SAFL Outdoor Stream Lab.

I was delighted recently to receive an invitation from the U of M's alumni association to tour the lab.

I was one of perhaps fifty-thousand to whom the email was addressed, but I expressed an interest, and Hilary and I were given a slot on a one-hour afternoon tour. It turned out to be a two-hour tour...but I'm not complaining. There's a lot going on down there in the lab.

There may have been twelve of us in the group. Communications director Barbara Heitkamp started us off with a twenty-minute Powerpoint presentation. "I usually don't do this," she said, "but we're not going to be able to see the bottom floor of the lab, because we might disturb the fish in one of our experiments, so I thought I'd use the extra time to give you all an overview of what we're currently working on."

This turned out the be a blessing in disguise, because the visuals Barbara projected onto the screen gave a more vivid impression of some of the experiments than merely looking at wave machines and wind tunnels possibly could. For example, she showed us a video clip of snowflakes illuminated by floodlights as they whiz past a big wind turbine at night out in a field in Rosemount. You could see the eddies forming consistently in some places and the relative speed of the wind at various heights.

She also gave us a brief history of the building, which was built in the 1930s and has been used as a hydraulics lab ever since. 

Eventually we headed upstairs to take a look at the gigantic U-shaped wind tunnel, in which they were studying various aspects of wind power, including not only efficiency but issues related to noise pollution. They had discovered that the low rumble given off by the turbines—too low to be audible—makes some people seasick.

I was surprised to learn that in many experiments the substance they blow through the tunnel is a fine mist of olive oil. I suggested that if they grew enough lettuce on the grounds outside, they could put a big bowl of it at the end of the tunnel, catch the oil, and have salad for lunch every day.

I also had the temerity, when Barbara was done describing the tunnel and its uses, to ask where the wind actually came from. A big fan?

"Yes. It's right over there. We call it the 'BAF'—big-ass fan."  Yes, but probably not when giving presentations to the Board of Regents.

From there it was two flights down to the floors below the level of the Mississippi upstream from the nearby falls, with a brief stop first in some labs where blue-green algae growth under investigation.

Down below the upstream water table, access to water flow was as easy as opening a spigot or a gate. Yet several of the experiments were very small in scale, and I had my doubts about whether anything of substance was being "unearthed." On the one hand, a fancy laser had been installed that rode back and forth on a stainless steel track above the room. If I remember correctly, it was capable of registering 800,000 pieces of data in five seconds. Sounds like overkill to me. On the other hand, once a big delta had developed in a tank over the course of days or weeks or particle deposition, the common practice was to slice it in two, spray a long piece of white paper with adhesive, and press the paper against the now-exposed side of the deposits to capture the stratification. Rather crude.

At one of the water tanks we observed an enthusiastic undergrad from St. Thomas who was creating a delta with very fine sand, a big pile of which was lying on the floor beside his desk. The goal was to track the patterns of deposit, so that it would become easier to identify the layers of minute hydrocarbon particles might develop in "real life."

The entire enterprise reminded me of the summer I spent (1970) doing experiments at the bio-engineering lab on the main campus of the U. I was in charge of a machine designed to filter red blood cells from blood, allowing the plasma to flow in a continuous stream, thus obviating the need for cumbersome centrifugal separation. The machine didn't work; the blood cells popped open as they hit the filter, thus ruining the plasma. My job was to figure out the optimum pressure to avoid the hemolysis. 

I don't need to go into the details of my research here, or the chain of events that turned my attention away from science toward history and literature. But the atmosphere in the lab was the same: jerry-rigged one-of-a-kind machinery and bags of dog blood side by side with sophisticated viscometers and spectrophotometers. Graph paper, duct tape, and tin foil scattered here and there. (In those days there were no computer screens.) 

The operations at the lab also reminded me of my brother's sixth-grade science project—a plywood water tray the size of a small surfboard covered with metal filings, over which water flowed continuously. As you set obstacles of varying dimensions into the flow, the patterns in the filings would shift. It was fun to play with.

I was also reminded of how memorable those childhood days are when heavy rain send water gushing alongside curbs and through gullies. There were plenty of undeveloped areas in the neighborhood where I grew up, and as freshets developed in the woods and fields and roads it was mesmerizing to toss a twig of just the right size and weigh into the water and follow it as it floated downstream, bobbing past miniature rapids and plunging over waterfalls. If it was still raining lightly, all the better.

At our last stop we came upon three individuals—they might have been scientists or engineers but they looked like Mack and Meyer—fiddling with an antique motor rigged to a piston that was pushing a square piece of plywood back and forth in a Plexiglas trough filled with green water. This contraption was being designed to study the morphology of sediments deposited on a beach over time.

One of the men, whom Barbara introduced to us as Benjamin Erickson, turned out to be the building manager. Once again, he reminded me of people I used to work with at the bio-engineering lab--Gordie Voss, Dick Forstrum, Frank Dormand. I would characterize such people as brilliant children who had somehow worked their fascinating boyhood hobbies into lifelong careers, thus preserving their sense of wonder and of fun..  

The guy told Barbara that we were in luck. The fish had been removed from the experimental tubes through which they were trying to swim and the lower floor was now open. We headed down another flight of stairs, and at the bottom we came upon a variety of experiments, and also relics of other experiments. One dated back to the Cold War era, and involved a joint study by Honeywell and the U.S. Navy of the fluid dynamics involved in shooting a missile from a submarine. The gigantic tubes used in this study stood next to an exposed limestone wall that was actually part of the riverbank. Nearby were some very large tanks that had originally been used to store the water supply for the city of St. Anthony until a cholera outbreak in the 1860s (if I remember correctly) underscored the need for a better system.

We reemerged into daylight above an outdoor stream bed that was being used to study the factors that keep mussel environments healthy. Every mussel in the stream had been fitted with a sensor that registered whether it was open or closed, twenty-four hours a day. (You can see the stream bed winding through the prairie grasses in the photo below.)

If everything works out as planned, soon we'll all be eating fresh mussels daily, covered in a fine mist of olive oil and salt extracted from the soil under a wind turbine. We'll be reading Herodotus, and wondering why everyone was so anxious back in the twentieth century.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Class Warfare Redux, or, Pierre Bourdieu on Trial

In a recent editorial (New York Times, July 18, 2017), columnist David Brooks makes use of the theories of French intellectual Pierre Bourdieu (pictured above) in an effort to explain the Trump phenomenon. He describes Bourdieu as “the world’s most influential sociologist within the academy, and largely unknown outside of it.”

This remark in itself tells us something about the insular nature of academic sociology, and perhaps proves Bourdieu’s major point, which is that groups of people (that’s what sociologists study...but also what they are) develop a “habitus” or an “intuitive feel” for the social game, and such a habitus consequently shapes their habits, tastes, and values. To me this sounds like a circular description of what a social group is. Your environment and history shape your social habits, and your social habits shape your environment and history. If you don’t accept this commonplace notion, then sociology itself is bunk.

Dueling grillmasters - seeds of revolution
Brooks writes: “Your habitus is what enables you to decode cultural artifacts, to feel comfortable in one setting but maybe not in another. Taste overlaps with social position; taste classifies the classifier.”

Thus, Bourdieu “discovered” (by means of questionnaires, I presume)  that manual laborers are likely to enjoy listening to Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” but not Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Among academics the situation was reversed.

Even this simple example begins to suggest how limited and uncomprehending the sociological approach tends to be. People like a particular piece of music, not because their friends like it, but because it speaks to them personally. Academics tend to like Bach for the same reasons they became academics—it tickles their intellect. Hence the correlation. Working-class Joe’s like country music because they like “real songs about real people with real problems.” But some academics like rap, and some ore boat workers like Beethoven. Musical tastes are born largely from within. To take an extreme example, Bob Dylan loved black music from an early age and was convinced he’d been born into the wrong family.

Warfare within the habitus
Some of my friends like Greg Brown, others like Barry White. Some never tire of Irish music, while others cannot get enough of Balkan vocal dissonance. Some of my friends like musicals but steer clear of opera. With me the situation is reversed. We respect one another’s enthusiasms and devote some energy to expanding our own, but no one feels the need to conform to the habitus of the group.

But it appears that Bourdieu wasn’t all that interested in the subject of our multivarious habitae, except in so far as they can be exploited in the quest for personal and political power.  He argued (according to Brooks) that we make use of the cultural signs we receive from our habitus in an endless quest for personal prestige, with the ultimate objective of developing the power to “define for society what is right, what is ‘natural,’ what is ‘best.’ “

As Brooks describes the theory: “Every minute or hour, in ways we’re not even conscious of, we as individuals and members of our class are competing for dominance and respect. (emphasis added) We seek to topple those who have higher standing than us and we seek to wall off those who are down below. Or, we seek to take one form of capital, say linguistic ability, and convert it into another kind of capital, a good job.”

Once again, I find such an argument jejune, the reflection of a deprave and misanthropic intellectual who has never participated much in genuine social life. But let me hasten to add that there is a grain of truth in the theory. We have all found ourselves at one time or another in a social milieu that made us feel uncomfortable because its constituents were drawing from an unfamiliar set of signs and references. Usually the underlying factor is relative wealth. To reduce the situation to a couple of bald-faced stereotypes, the poor have bad taste ... but so do the rich. Only my own friends set the right balance between marble-topped kitchen counters and water in the basement, between Prairie Home Companion and Liquid Music, between the delights of the international film fest and Guardians of the Galaxy.
Competition is rife
And it occurs to me immediately to add that among this group, neither competition nor ostentatious displays of wealth have ever been part of the social equation. Some of my friends live very comfortably, while others might well be struggling with a mountain of debt, but I couldn’t tell you for sure which is which, and I wouldn't want to know.  

Pursuing the nuances of the situation further, I must admit that when I have occasion to socialize within a group that's obviously wealthier and more well-connected than I am, I'm often struck by the lack of pretension, the desire to extend hospitality rather than establish any type of superiority or dominance. (Perhaps this is because I am so obviously so far outside my limits of my own habitus that no social purpose would be served by "scoring point" off of me.)  

Bourdieu coined a famous phrase “symbolic violence” to describe the vicious power grabs executed within and between social groups making use of a host of “signs” including cultural references, acquisitions, clothing, and vocabulary. It’s a bad phrase, in so far as symbols are merely indicators or shadows of real things. By definition, real violence is worse than symbolic violence. More generally speaking, this theory fails to account for the deep and obvious interest of the occupants of many habitae to nurture their conviviality, extend their blessings, share their wealth, and develop a better understanding of tastes and values different from their own.

We call these people Democrats.

Perhaps Bourdieu, scrambling to maintain his dominance with his peculiar academic niche, had no experience with such a habitus. Protean and multifarious, it eludes the attention of both the statistician and the social climber, and it also challenges the ingenuity of campaign strategists to exploit with negative advertising.

But back to the subject at hand. Brooks writes: “Bourdieu helps you understand what Donald Trump is all about.” And yet, stripped of their high-flung terminology and pretensions, Bourdieu’s theories add nothing to our understanding of the current political situation. All Brooks (through Bourdieu) is saying is that when a boor is in the White House, it emboldens others to assert their own bigoted values and ideas. 

The underlying notion—that both “left” and “right” are playing the same harsh and violent game, making use of two different sets of propaganda that are morally indistinguishable—is simply not very discerning. It also vitiates the value of political opinion pieces, which, ipso facto, are stripped of their theoretical content and become nothing more than fusillades of a competitive and conniving class neither different from, nor wiser than, any other.  

I don’t believe this ... and neither, I think, does David Brooks.  

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Most Beautiful Morning

Yes, it was. The most beautiful of the summer, so far. I don't mean to compare it with so many fresh, sparkling morning we've had in recent weeks, but this one had the added virtue of being present, here, now.

I went out to prune some bushes at 6, taking care not to make too much noise as I opened the garage door and reached for the pruning shears. Not for the first time I said to myself, "The wrong bushes were planted here," using the passive voice to evade culpability. I should have said, "We planted the wrong bushes here." 

Get over it! We've got three robust shrubs—a viburnum opulum, a green-twigged dogwood, and a forsythia. The only problem is that they all want to be twenty feet tall, rather than eight. I tried to dig up the cranberry bush years ago, and eventually took an ax to the roots. But no. It wanted to stay. And considering how many of the things we've planted died decades ago, I ought to be thankful.

Two baby chipping sparrows were feeding amid the cast-off fruit of the basswood tree that overhangs the driveway. (We got none of that heavenly linden smell this year. I've never figured out what the factors are that determine production.)

It had rained during the night and a few pools of water had collected on the concrete. The humid air smelled like plants and dirt. The sun was just beginning to streak through the cottonwoods in the neighbor's yard across the street. And suddenly it occurred to me I ought to drive down to Bassett Creek and measure the clarity of the water.

This might sound like a hare-brained idea, but I've been monitoring the water there once a week for several years, and sending the results in to the DNR in the fall. They're especially eager to get readings after what they call "rain events."

(If you want to see the data I collected last year, click here.

If you want to see a broader view of the hundreds of monitoring sites, click here. )

As I drove down the parkway with the window down, a simple and haunting piano piece happened to be on the CD player: Franz Listz's Annees de pelerinage:2eme annee: Italie. Spozalitio. (I didn't know what it was, though I suspected Listz. I looked it up in my iTunes catalog just now.)
The water level in the creek has been low, but the water I scooped up from the bridge a week ago scored 100+. You can't do better. This morning the water level was back to normal, but I lost sight of the little metal disc at 68 centimeters down the Secchi tube. A bit muddy. (The creek's worst score ever was 19.)

Having made my reading, I returned the bucket and tube to the car, then lingered in the cool air, relishing the subtle and spectacular dawn I was standing in the midst of.

The sun was still behind the trees, but there was plenty of light to see the watery sparkle on the grasses and shrubs lining the creek. An egret was feeding in the shadows on the far side of the pond, and a school of suckers was riling the water thirty yards upstream from the bridge. A flock of geese flew by overhead. And a common yellowthroat was singing merrily in the tall grasses alongside the makeshift archery range just across the parkway.

It won't be that long before the birds stop singing. On the other hand, evening cricket-choruses on the deck are also just around the corner. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Bastille Day Meditations

There is a lunatic in the White House, yet a big bunch of asparagus at Trader Joe's is only $2.95. Thus do life's incongruities intersect, or at the very least coexist.

On Bastille Day, we celebrate the good life by toasting it and living it as best we can. 

In honor of the day, I got an email this morning from the New York Review of Books touting their collection of French language reprints, and offering selected volumes at 40 percent off. It was an interesting mix. There was Jean Giono's Hill. But reading the descriptive notes convinced me that it's the same novel that was originally called Hill of Destiny. I have the first American edition, published in 1928, right here on the shelf.

The film-maker Jean Renoir's book about his father, titled simply Renoir, My Father, is rich in that combination of casual rural charm and aesthetic sophistication which is the crowning achievement of early 20th century French culture. However, I happen to have the first American edition right here on the shelf beside me. I also have a hardcover book club edition—my "reader's copy," as it were—ready and waiting in the basement.

My French is as shaky as ever, but I'm pretty sure the third of the books on sale, Maupassant's Like Death, is a translation of Fort Comme la Mort, which I read just out of college, probably because Ford Madox Ford drew heavily from it for the plot of his early masterpiece The Good Soldier.  I got my copy of the book at a very musty used book store in a dreary part of Duluth a few blocks up the hill from Michigan Street—a neighborhood of churches and tenements—as part of a multi-volume set with cheap purple binding—a dollar per book, as I recall. I'm quite sure this new translation, by Richard Howard, is far better. Tempting.

Then we have Henri de Montherland's Chaos and Night, which I read in the 1990s. All I remember is that it's the story of a cranky man and his daughter, exiled to Spain, grumbling about the government, following the bullfights. Were they Spanish or French? I don't recall. I liked its excoriating bitterness at the time. But do I want to re-read it?

The list moves on the Patrick Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize as recently as 2014. I read one of his books a few months ago. It seemed like a Simenon mystery, but without Inspector Maigret or the mystery. Maybe I ought to give him another chance. On the other hand, I'm a little too old to be reading books with titles like Young Once and In the Café of Lost Youth, don't you think?

In honor of Bastille Day, I put a few select CDs in the changer as we were making dinner: Gilles Chabenat's very long hurdy-gurdy recording, enlivened by a few female vocals, and Nicolas Peyton's Dear Louis, a big band homage to Louis Armstrong and the spirit of New Orleans. Hilary pulled a lump of lamb out of the freezer a few days ago, and I copied a recipe for a lamb tagine from a New York Times article featuring quintessential Bastille Day recipes. The spices smelled good the minute they hit the pan—ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg. But I had failed to read the recipe to the point where it says: "Cook in the oven at 325 degrees for 2 1/2 hours."

We decided to hurry the process on the stove-top, and I put another CD on the stereo—Motifs by a group I've never heard of called Paris Combo. I'm not a big fan of French pseudo-jazz, unless it's being used as the soundtrack for an Eric Rohmer film. But listening from the other room, Paris Combo wasn't that bad.   

Yet finally the flashy tunes became as unbearable as a green polka dot shirt, and we moved on to the great recordings made by Django and Grappelli in 1938 with the Hot Club of Paris. Years ago we used a few of these tracks as a soundtrack to Payment in Full, a brilliant thirty-minute super-8 version of Othello some of us cooked up in which neither Othello nor Desdemona die. The only extant copy sits in the basement, becoming more brittle and flammable year after year. Maybe I should take it in to CostCo and convert it to DVD, with a new title: In the Café of Lost Youth.  

I was worried about the meal. I'm used to a tagine with sliced lemons and black olives, and I wasn't sure how this one would turn out. But it was rich and good, smothering the couscous, with a squeeze of lemon juice and some cilantro on top. In the midst of that hearty dish, I couldn't tell the difference between the apricots and the chunks of meat.

I suppose I should have hunted up a Radio Tarifa CD to go with it, but we were working our way into a special-occasion bottle of Domaine de la Brassande Mercurey. We were sitting in comfy chairs in the living room, and the silence that ensued following Django's final number, "If You Can Forget, Don't Worry 'Bout Me," was also very nice.

This morning we thought we'd extend the event with a turn around the lakes, which sometimes look a lot like the Seine at Argenteuil circa 1872. But having arrived on the scene, we noticed that Hilary's bike had gotten a flat, and the best we could do was continue down to Turtle Bakery on 46th Street and pick up some fresh-baked croissants.

Not that I was complaining...