Saturday, December 30, 2017

What's the Matter?

It's so cold today that I found it necessary to go down to the basement and dig out the Basque beret I bought in St. Emilion in 1978. Even the lightest stocking cap presses down on my head too much for indoor comfort, though the leather band on this beret is entirely shot and it isn't all that comfortable, either.

I haven't opened a bottle of wine from St. Emilion in many years, but double-checking the wine cabinet just now I found a bottle of Chateau Tour d'Auron 2014. It's "Bordeaux Superior," which may sound better than it is.

Soon I'll head out to the garage to fetch some firewood. They say it's going down to -16˚ tonight.

I realize that metaphysics has never been a required subject in high school or college. All the same, I'm often surprised by the illogicality of phrases I meet up with in popular discussions of the meaning of life, history, the universe, and all the rest. I came across one in the New Yorker just a few minutes ago. Reviewing the year's best books, Joshua Rothman remarks of philosopher Daniel Dennett that "I know of no other thinker who so convincingly shows how human life, in all its vivid, soulful richness, might make sense as part of a purely material universe."

I am not familiar with Dennett's work, though I was intrigued enough by the title of one of his books, Freedom Evolves, to purchase a copy a few years ago. The phrase that caught me up short in Rothman's remark, as you probably guessed, is "a purely material universe."

If we had all studied metaphysics in high school, we'd be aware that "materialism," in all its forms, is useless as a descriptive or an explanatory construct. In the first place, the theory itself, "materialism," is not material. Thus it harbors an inner contradiction. Beyond that, no materialistic theory can explain why, to take a simple example, a hydrogen atom is different from a carbon atom. They're both "made of" matter, along with a bit of energy. Yet their shape, their properties, their character, are entirely different. Why?

These molecules are different, of course, because they're organized differently. Thus even the most primitive materialist theory much acknowledge a second element at work in the universe—structure. Matter may "hold" the structure, but the structure is something other than the matter.

An omelet and a soufflé are made from the same materials, but they aren't alike. Similar materials have been assembled differently.   

The first materialist theories were developed in classical times as a corrective to other theories in which gods, spirits, emanations, and other similarly vague and intangible forces and beings moved and worked. The best of them—that of Lucretius, for example—recognized that matter could be arranged in all sorts of interesting and distinctive ways.  But a major element in both their allure and their controversy lay in their conviction that nothing lay beyond or above matter. In short, there was no "spirit."

Yet this characterization of spirit as something separate from and somehow above matter is no less primitive than the undifferentiated matter it opposes--primitive, but widespread, and not entirely wrong-headed.  Most people feel the need for transcendence in a vague way, at least occasionally. I do. Seeing the brilliant sun on the crisp white snow outside the window makes me want to scream for joy, but I'd be hard presses to capture that effect, bottle it, or share it with others.

And looking a little closer at that snow, I see three deer huddled in the woods behind the house. There isn't much to eat there. And these creatures are a lot colder than I am.

Our "spiritual" moments might include encountering a deer, becoming enthralled by a novel, hosting a lively social event, or dishing out meals at a homeless shelter. In any case, the transcendence involved is often less a matter of escape than of connection, of greater or more expansive organization.

Alas, that word, organization, carries its own unfortunate connotations. We tend to associate it with rigor, set routine, "everything in its place." But the best organization isn't necessarily the strictest or the tightest. It's usually the case that sophisticated entities harbor a good deal of flexibility and "give" within their structure. Thus do the characteristics of "spirit" come more clearly into focus.

We don't live in a "purely physical universe."Anyone can see that. Light a fire, put the Well-Tempered Clavier on the stereo, grab that book you've been meaning to read, or spend a little time watching the amaryllis that your cousin gave you for Christmas grow taller by infinitesimal degrees.

Such shapely greenness. Such noble structure ... such spirit.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Genius of the Season

So much is conveyed by a single phrase—a single word. Thus, celebrating "the birth of God” carries a different connotation from celebrating "the birth of a god.” Maybe the word "birth” says it all.

I was chatting at a party the other day with a friend who's writing a book about how dramatists and psychologists differ in their view of human nature. In brief, psychologists are interested in exploring causal links to the past to explain illness and bad habits, whereas dramatists mine the explosive and unpredictable creativity latent in every moment of history. When Hamlet says, 'To be or not to be," he's weighing his options, trying to make a decision. To a psychologist, such decisions have already been made for him by his DNA.

Both points of view have elements of merit, though I'd much rather go to the theater than read the latest issue of the  Neuroscience and Behavior Psychology Review; there's likely to be a lot more life and truth in it.

A friend of ours was visiting from Texas, as he does every Christmas. We've enjoyed listening to his adventures over the years, from the era when he was building an art handling business and fixing up his warehouse space on the wrong side of the tracks, to more recent times, when he's largely occupied with working on the retirement ranch he bought 90 minutes from Dallas. Things have worked out well for him, but as he told us the other day, "There was really no plan. I did what I had to do, step by step. It was that or go back to what I was doing before. And I couldn't do that."

Listening to him reflect on his life path, I was inclined to remark that if there hadn't been a plan, there had certainly been a direction. To my ears, everything Dave has done he described to us long ago as something he wanted to do ... though I don't recall hearing anything much about a ranch in the boondocks.

The next morning, feeling a little "thick," perhaps, from the whiskey we'd been drinking the night before, I pulled from the shelves a collection of essays by Henri Bergson called The Creative Mind: an Introduction to Metaphysics. Choosing from the table of contents an essay titled THE POSSIBLE AND THE REAL, this is what I read:
I should like to come back to a subject on which I have often spoken, the continuous creation of unfore­seeable novelty which seems to be going on in the uni­verse. As far as I am concerned, I feel I am experiencing it constantly. No matter how I try to imagine in detail what is going to happen to me, still how inadequate, how abstract and stilted is the thing I have imagined in comparison to what actually happens! The realization brings along with it an unforeseeable nothing which changes everything. For example, I am to be present at a gathering; I know what people I shall find there, around what table, in what order, to discuss what prob­lem. But let them come, be seated and chat as I expected, let them say what I was sure they would say: the whole gives me an impression at once novel and unique, as if it were but now designed at one original stroke by the hand of an artist.
Isn't Christmas a little like that? Predictable and slightly oppressive in its prospect, enriching and often delightful as it "comes to pass."

On the morning after, light comes to a blank blue sky, the temperature's below zero, football's on hold, and the refrigerator is full of leftovers glowing with the warmth of recent gatherings. 

My Greek is a little rusty, but as I recall, the prefix “gen-” carries a range of inference that spans race, type, line of descent, origin, creation, sexual relations, and reproduction. Just think of the modern equivalents: generationgeniusgeneratorgender, genuine, and genesis.

But that simple prefix, "gen," can also take us in a different direction. Alongside that series of concepts having to do with novelty, creativity, authenticity, and uniqueness, it also underlies concepts such as genus, genealogy, and general, that lump things together into groups on the basis of their type or ancestry. Today we hold no one in higher esteem than the “genius,” yet reserve our most withering derision for the merely “generic.” 

These two sides of the expression will never be reconciled--one looks back, the other ahead--but it would be a mistake to imagine that they’re entirely opposed to one another. For example, we meet up with both at every social gathering: the idiosyncrasies and the differences between family members that stimulate us (though they can also annoy us) and the veins of affection that run ever-deeper and constitute the reality (rather than merely the pedigree) of the clan.

Praise be to whoever cooked up a universe replete with such affinities, both elective and congenital. May we become ever more generous and genial in our efforts to expand their reach.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

First Ski—Just Me and the Squirrels

I was sitting in the living room the other day reading a book about Basque peasants called In a Hundred Graves when a cooper's hawk landed on a branch just outside the window.

I think it might have been the most beautiful hawk I've ever seen. I've seen plenty of accipers in my day; the buffy, wavy, reddish-brown stripes on their chest is often lovely, standing in contrast to the soft blue-gray wing and back feathers. This one had the added virtue of looking relaxed as he perched on the branch, rather than steely-eyed and ever-alert for little songbirds to eat.

Or maybe it was just that I was relaxed, and the bird was right outside the window. I was tempted to leap up and run for the camera, which was on top of the piano on the far side of the room, but I would have spooked him, I'm sure. Better just to observe and enjoy. (That's a fake photo you see above, as you probably noticed.)

He changed his position once or twice, fanning his feathers as he did so. Then he flew off, dropping and then rising as he swooped around the corner of the house and out of sight.

That was the start of a beautiful evening. The next episode involved some short-ribs left over from a weekend gathering, a single turnip, some carrots, and a couple of Pillsbury pie crusts, which Hilary and I transformed, with the help of some thyme, nutmeg, onions, and garlic, into one of the best pasties I've ever had.  

When I got up this morning it was snowing, but the day was warm, and I decided to go for a morning ski—the first of the season. They've been making snow down at Wirth Golf Course, a few minutes from the house, for weeks, and also building a big new ski chalet. I happen to like things the way they were...but I'm also of the (minority) opinion that skiing is a exercise in woodsy solitude rather than feverish and hectic competition. I'm still wearing choppers and fish-net long underwear on the ski trails, and until recently Hilary was still using bamboo ski poles.

All the same, we benefit from the artificial snow and the sophisticated grooming techniques that have made Wirth Park among the best skiing destinations in the Cities, and I don't begrudge the city its annual $75 skiing fee. Yet I'm afraid the feature that excites me most about all the new construction is the café that's going to be inside the chalet. Maybe they'll serve pasties?

I had a hard time finding my way to any new show from the parking lot, what with the ground torn up by the tracks of big vehicles and snow machines going full blast alongside the trails. So I headed out toward the woods on thin but natural snow. That's my preferred route anyway. The gate at the far end of the par three course was closed, and there was a lock on it...but the gate wasn't actually locked, so I opened it and went on into the woods. 

Beautiful fields, woods, trails. The tracks of a single bicycle. And squirrels everywhere. As the trail looped past Twin Lake and curled back toward the half-built chalet, I began to wonder if the gate at the far end of the loop might also be open. It's the prettiest section of the trail. The problem is that the gate stands right at the bottom of a hill. I would have to come to an abrupt stop, or more likely just fall down, to avoid crashing into it.

In the end, I prudently walked down the final hill. The gate was locked. Rather than retracing my path, I decided to crawl under it. It was a tight squeeze. As I was lying on the thin snow, halfway under the gate, I noticed, looking up, how beautiful the trees looked that were arching above my head. Each species offered a different silhouette.

And I was reminded of my dad, who died a few months ago at the age of 94. I never considered him to be a poetic soul, exactly, but when we were up north, he liked to lie on the ground on his back and take pictures of the trees above his head. I think it may have reflected a sense of peace that he didn't experience all that often.

This one's for you, Dad.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Movie Season Begins

Now that it gets dark at 4 p.m. rather than 8, and the studios begin to unfurl their Oscar contenders, the idea of going to the movies once again gains force. Here are two early birds, and a few summer winners.

Lady Bird
It's the story of a teenage girl in Sacramento, California,  self-named Lady Bird, who vaguely aspires to something better than the life her caring and dutiful middle-class parents have given her. She endures the daily routine at a Roman Catholic high school, gets excited when she's given a part in the class play, becomes involved romantically with the handsome lead actor, fights with her mother daily, and seems to get her greatest emotional satisfaction from hanging out with her best friend, Julie, a bright and extremely good-natured but chubby girl with no pretensions whatsoever to a glamorous life.

The film works because the episodes, one after another, are both humorous and believable. Lady Bird is willful, heedless, and occasionally cruel; she often goes after the wrong things. But the episodes seem to be events that might have happened, rather than contrived opportunities for pratfalls and embarrassing situations. In fact, the film seems like one real teenager's coming-of-age story, and it would be reasonable to assume that the woman is Greta Gerwig, who wrote and directed the film.

Whatever the case may be, the dialog is crisp, the parental pain excruciating, the flow of events unpredictable, the end-result satisfying. Saoirse Ronan is perfect in the title role—though it's quite different from the one she played in Brooklyn. [Spoiler alert: No pregnancies, drug overdoses, or car crashes.}

Lady Bird might be considered as a prequel to Frances, Ha!, which Gerwig co-wrote and also stars in. They'd make a good double feature.

The Meyerowitz Stories      
Here we have a second dialog-driven family comedy-drama, this one about adults, and set on the opposite coast. The focus in on half-brothers—played by Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler—who are trying to sort out their strained relationship in the context of a family environment shaped by the overarching presence of their father, the family patriarch, played by Dustin Hoffman. A largely forgotten sculptor, he was once considered promising but spent most of his professional career teaching, yet he still nourishes a grand self-image. His third wife (Emma Thompson) is an agreeable lush.

 Stiller dropped the artistic vein and became a successful real estate broker in L. A.; Sandler never got around to doing much of anything, though it's obvious he's a caring father. Yes, there's a granddaughter in the mix, on her way to college, and also a third sibling—a dutiful sister. The situations are geared more toward comedy than angst, and we pick up pieces of the puzzle one by one during conversations with gallery owners, former wives, former students, and former artistic rivals who have now made it big.

Hoffman is a little brittle, but Sandler is surprisingly good. It's great family chaos, skeletons in the closet, unshakeable misunderstandings, East Coast fun.


A Finnish film that translates as "Unexpected Journey," Saattokeikka bears comparison to the popular A Man Called Ove, in that a grumpy octogenarian's world is opened up slightly by a youthful and seemingly naive foreigner. The old-timer, Veikko, is played by Heikki Nousiainen, whom you may remember as the blind priest in Letters to Father Jacob. He can't stand the African music being played on the basketball court outside his apartment building, which is mostly inhabited by immigrants and refugees, but he eventually finds himself in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a local "Somali" lad named Kamil. The young man is actually from Nigeria, and he doesn't own the car, but he wants to earn money to reunite with his dad, so he agrees to take Veikko to his remote rural cottage for a large sum of cash. Thus yet another classic odd-couple road trip commences, full of laughs, pine woods, freezing lakes, romance, family reckoning, and pathos.
And while we're on the subject of films, I might mention two summer releases that will soon be available to stream, if they aren't already.

The Big Sick    

A Pakistani comedian falls for a winsome blonde in the audience at a comedy club. He never gets around to telling her that his parents are adamant about him marrying a woman from his own country. Difficulties ensue. But the continuing humor and interest in the film comes from the comic's interactions with his ex-girlfriend's parents (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) when she gets sick.


It tells the unusual (but largely true) story of a woman with spinal deformities named Maudie (played by Sally Hawkins, whom you may remember from Happy Go Lucky)  who becomes the housekeeper of a gruff woodcutter and fish salesman named Everett (played by Ethan Hawk). It shouldn't be such a tough job; his house is only 11 x 11 feet square. Maudie soon starts painting images on the walls in her free time. 

Before long her little cardboard images have become popular, to Everett's irritation. Her rising fame in the art world provides the meat of the story, but it's the ever changing relationship between Maudie and Everett that holds our interest. Along with the rural Nova Scotia countryside.

Not long after seeing the film, I went to a exhibition at the Swedish Institute at which paintings from the opposite end of the art spectrum were on display. Where Maudie's work is näive, the paintings of Karin Broos are highly realistic. Maudie paints cats and flowers; Broos paints troubled, anxious women, often in the company of their daughters.

There is no need for us to choose between the two. In the end, maybe neither aesthetic is completely satisfying. Perhaps both are. And maybe no aesthetic is completely suitable to every passing mood or condition. In any case, I find the contrast in tone interesting.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Sheila's Recital

The Source Song Festival, which takes place every year in August, consists largely of workshops and tutorials at which already accomplished singers and accompanists further cultivate their talent in a field of music that's about as popular as free jazz, namely, the art song. I've never been to one of these workshops—I have neither the training nor the talent—but I do enjoy the recitals that the festival's participants give in the early evenings at Antonello Hall in downtown Minneapolis.

Every summer Hilary and I make it a habit to drop in at the happy hour at Zen Box Ichikawa, which is right across the street, and then settle in for a dazzling evening of Faure, Schubert, Wolf, or whoever happens to be on the program.

You can imagine our delight, therefore, when we learned that our friend Sheila Wolk was planning to give a recital at Antonello Hall. She's been a professional musician for most of her adult life, singing in Germany for more than a decade, mounting (and appearing in) operas at the University of Minnesota, and teaching opera production at universities in Washington State, Texas, and other artsy locales.

The recital was a come-back of sorts—Sheila hadn't sung in public for four years—and it was a knock-out. (Incidentally, the same program will be presented again on Friday, December 1, at St. Joseph's School of Music.)

The program was brilliantly shaped to include some strange poems by Holderin set to fittingly astringent music by Hans Werner Henze  and also a more agreeable, but still challenging and slippery, set by the French composer Ernest Chausson.

Another savvy stroke was to devise a program that made it possible for the husband-and-wife team of pianist Heather MacLaughlin and guitarist Alan Johnston, equal partners with Sheila in the event, to split the accompaniment. Johnston also played a number of solo guitar selections (I especially liked his interpretation of  Ombre by Francis Kleynjans) and he and MacLaughlin went to town on Sonata for Piano and Guitar, an ebullient piece they commissioned a few years ago by local hero David Evan Thomas.

Alban Berg's Sieben Frühe Lieder served as a fitting wrap-up, a soaring and lyrical romanticism propelled by an edgy Germanic thrust filling the hall with strong emotion.

One element of the performance that escapes many, including me, is the poetry. Before the recital got underway I noticed some charming lines by the poet Armande Silvestre in the program. For example:
When your glance fell on me, I felt my soul melting,
But what that emotion could be, at first I could not discern. 

And what about these lines by Holderin?
Would I like to be a comet? I believe so. For they have the swiftness of birds, they blossom with fire, and are like children in their purity. To wish for more than that is beyond the measure of human nature.
We may presume that the sentiments are heightened by the music, but without at least a rudimentary command of French and German, there is no way to tell what's being said at any given time.

In the lobby after the performance Sheila, Heather, and Alan chatted with old friends and well-wishers. A few of us eventually made our way to the Crooked Pint, where Sheila told stories about her years performing (and drinking) in Germany, and reminisced with two grade-school friends with whom she used to ride the bus downtown from North Minneapolis, back in the days when Kresge's, Woolworth's, and Ben Franklin were every young girl's prime shopping destinations. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

My Black Friday

My attitude toward Black Friday was changed forever when I got an email from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts announcing that on the morning after Thanksgiving they would be opening their doors at 6 a.m., knocking 20 percent of the price of everything in their gift shop, and offering free admission to their current show, Eyewitness Views: Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe. I had neither read nor heard anything to convince me it would be worthwhile parting with $20 for the opportunity to see a succession of street scenes by Canaletto, Guardi, and other painters of similar ilk—paintings that appear in many shows with other themes, and also hang in numerous provincial museums throughout Europe. But minus the entry fee, that same show would serve as a delightful destination on a crisp Friday morning, following a day spent amid the hubbub of a large family gathering.

Though the doors opened at 6, Hilary and I were confident that a 7 a.m. arrival time would work out fine. Light was just coming to the city as we drove through downtown Minneapolis, crossed the newly redesigned Nicollet Mall (but where are all the trees they've been talking so much about?) and down Third Avenue to the museum.

Through the naked trees in Washburn Fair Oaks Park, the marble facade of the McKim, Mead, and White structure seemed to glow amid the shadows, and it reminded me of the painting by Sargent, Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight, 1879, that has hung inside for decades.

The lobby was relatively quiet, and as we passed by the reception desk a woman handed us two tickets to the show upstairs. A long table had been set up at the top of the stairs with pots of coffee and cookies wrapped in plastic. The chairs nearby were mostly occupied.

Postponing that minor treat, we made our way up a second flight of the stairs and down the hall to the relevant gallery, where an attendant handed each of us a small device on a lanyard and a set of headphones with which to listen to it. I soon turned it off. I'd rather read the signs. Much of the time I'd rather read nothing at all. (I miss a lot.)

The paintings were large. More than half, I would guess, depicted events in Venice, but there was a large rendering of the flooding of the Piazza Novana in Rome, an eye-witness view of Vesuvius erupting, and a canvas depicting a hot air balloon in transit over the rooftops of Paris. There were several paintings of urban fires at night, one or two Papal processions, a grand opera event (or was that merely a coronation in an opera house?) and several versions of the annual Marriage to the Sea festival on the Grand Canal in Venice.

The effect in most cases was primarily social. By looking closely at the crowd, you got a sense of the fellow-feeling, the vanity, the artistry, the glamour, and the pretensions from which such events draw their energy. In one Polish scene a few cows were grazing in a field across the road from the magnificent palace. And the huge painting of Charles III of Spain departing from Naples offered an impressive look at the bay itself. You know what they used to say in the days before the bucket list: "See Naples and die."

I think the art of the rococo is somewhat underappreciated. There is a true lyric quality to the drawing of figures that puts Lorrain (for example) to shame, and the blue, cloud-filled skies are often marvelous. I have long been meaning to read Roberto Calasso's book-length essay, Tiepolo Pink. (Pulling it off the shelf just now, I see by the bookmark that I once got to page 48, though I'd have to start over if I picked it up again.)

But I was starting to think about a cookie and a nice cup of coffee.

Back in the upper lobby, we snagged a table and enjoyed watching other early birds pass by. It wasn't Venice, but there was plenty of variety and color just the same.  Then we went into the gift shop, where I spotted a book called The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair. 

I'd like to know the different between puce and pharlap, for example. I guess it's just a matter of knowing the words, and recognizing the difference.

Armed with such information, Black Friday might one day thrive side-by-side with Puce Friday, Chartreuse Friday, and Mauve Friday. The possibilities are, well, almost endless.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Mozart Weekend

It's not often you get to hear two Mozart operas "live" in a single weekend. When one of them is the seldom performed opera seria  Idomeneo, and the Saint Paul Chanber Orchestra happens to be performing Mozart's 41st symphony on the same weekend, you've got a genuine, if fortuitous, Mozart festival on your hands.

Reading Alfred Einstein's A Short History of Music during my college days, I was surprised that he devoted so much of the book  to opera. Over the years I've warmed to the genre. Well, opera isn't a genre, better to call it a universe.  Monteverdi's operas don't sound much like Mozart's, and Wagner's don't much resemble those of his close contemporary Verdi, much less the operas of Britten or Berg.

I cut my teeth on Don Giovanni, Otello, Carmen, and a few other classics. Then bel canto. Puccini and the verists came later, and opera seria last of all. Nowadays I thoroughly enjoy those early, static works based on mythological themes,  and I seek out opportunities to watch not only Handel's Italian operas and the few Gluck works that are still being performed, but whatever obscure opera from that era happens to be in town. Our own local troupe, Consortium Carrissimi, recently did Il Tirinto, an obscure opera by Bernardo Pasquini.  It was a knock-out. 

Mozart's Idomeneo is one of the last of that breed, and historians tell us that he broke the mold in the process of composing it, removing repetitive sections and shortening arias to heighten the dramatic effect. The result is a robust piece of musical theater, sui generis.

Yet the plot is nothing special.  Indomedeo, returning to Crete from the Trojan War, averts a storm at sea by vowing to sacrifice the first person he sees after landing safely to the sea god Neptune. Who should he meet up with on the beach but his son, Idamante. Idamante already has trouble on his hands—he's fallen in love with Ilia, one of the captives brought home to Crete from Troy, to the dismay of Electra, who's been doting on him for quite a while. While Idomedeo dithers, reluctant to specify whom he's going to have to sacrifice, a plague scours the island.

These awkward situations produce a succession of arias, noble and plaintive by turns, which is what we came to hear. Though the soloists were students, they were advanced vocal students, and they sounded fine to me. As did the orchestra. The choral interludes offered a welcome change of pace. I can hardly think of a better way to spend three hours.

I saw a woman across the aisle with a legal pad in her lap, and I couldn't resist asking her what she was up to. Critiquing the performance?  Turns out it was Lara Bolton,  a voice coach associated with the production (and also the Minnesota Opera, Source Song Festival, etc.).

"Which cast member are you related to?" she asked me.

"Nobody," I replied. "We just came to see the performance."

She wasn't shocked, but she was surprised. "Really? I wish more people would come out for these events."

The audience was indeed sparse. And the event had been featured in the Star-Tribune!  

 The Marriage of Figaro was a different story. Though the tickets were more expensive by a power of ten, the place was packed.  Of course, the opera is one of the most popular in the repertoire. Unlike the slightly staid and formal Idomeneo, Figaro is full of hijinks, intrigue, exuberance, and mistaken identities, often silly, occasionally tender or sinister, but also crossing over the line freely into farce.

To my mind, everything in this production worked, from the sets and staging to the individual characterizations and the on-stage logistics. There is so much going on that the challenge lies in preserving the humanity and good sense of the characters. The Count Almaviva that we saw was a conniving rake—there's no escaping that side of his character—but his lecherous instincts were less vicious than in some productions. By the same token, Cherubino's adolescent libidinousness was not so jazzed up as it sometimes is, and this, too, is a good thing. He reminded us that love is a good and natural and almost innocent thing, whatever dishonorable and devious paths it might eventually take.

In contrast, the recent production of Figaro at the Met was hypercharged to the point of feverish excess, and the revolving stage only added to the dismal effect. I saw it twice—once a simulcast at a cineplex in Brooklin Center and later on public television; both times I left at intermission. It was as if everyone had grown bored with the music, or forgotten what it was about.

The Minnesota Opera's production had just the right tone,  The revolving facades worked. The lighting of the candles worked. The countesses arias were sublime, and the trios and quartets, during which every character is saying something different, were electrifying. The only criticism I would have is that the supertitles were too brief and rudimentary to give a nuanced sense of what was being said.

I found the machinations of the last act incomprehensible, and quit trying to figure out who was trying to seduce or impersonate whom in the shadows of the Count's garden. All's well that ends well. Time to settle back and enjoy the music.

I hope I'm not giving away too much of the plot.    

Thursday, November 16, 2017

November - National Poetry Month

National poetry month? I know what you're going to say. Fake news!

In fact, I'm simply making a modest proposal that poetry month be shifted from April, when there's already a good deal of poetry in the air, to November, when we could actually use a few blasts of it from the printed page.

New books of poetry appear in significant numbers at this time of year, their authors (and publishers) hoping for sales from shoppers looking for something light and relatively inexpensive to get for Aunt Tillie, who is never going to make her way through the new biography of U.S. Grant, though she might enjoy the new Sharon Chmielarz collection, little eternities.  

I'm not trying to suggest that poetry is invariably sweet, frivolous, and inconsequential. More often people complain that poetry is unnecessarily difficult and bewildering. I would argue that whatever else it is, poetry is of the essence of life. It is never theoretical, never political, always actual. Description becomes speech, thought becomes drama. The unstated punch-line of every poem is something on the order of "Well I'll be darned!" or "Who would have thought it?"

There are times, however, when the latent drama of poetry is difficult to summons. The words lie flat, the rhythm eludes us, we're wondering what the "point" is. November is also a time of poetry readings, as authors set up events to promote their new works.

Hilary and I attended several last week. On Monday Michael Dennis Browne read at Magers & Quinn from Chimes, his new collection of shorter poems. "I am a happy man tonight," he said, and it was easy to see why. His children were there, including his son, who flew in from California as a surprise. There were old friends like Louis Jenkins and Norita Dittberner-Jax, and new collaborators like composer David Evan Thomas and Nodin Press publisher Norton Stillman.

Michael told us stories about his father and mother—stories you won't find in the book. The poems in the collection are drawn from every phase in his career, and Michael was clearly relishing the return journey, though he also read one more recent bitter-sweet poem in which he imagines his family sitting around the fire at the cabin once he's gone.

A few days later we stopped in at Common Good Books to hear a trio of poets: Joyce Sutphen, Tim Nolan, and Sharon Chmielarz, read from their books. Their styles could not have been more different. Joyce has a twinkly eye and a slow, soft delivery, Tim used the blunt comedic approach to good effect, and Sharon reminded me of my senior high English teacher, Mrs. Deutsch, a tall and stern but kindly woman whose insights into literature went far beyond anything we could comprehend.

Poems about cats, envelopes of time, shit, a yellow tea cup, an uncooperative alarm clock.  A good mix. We ran into Mike Hazard and his wife, Tressa, on the street before the reading and had a pleasant chat. (Mike took the photo of Joyce Sutphen you see below.)

I get the impression that most of the people who attend these events know the artists on stage as friends, teachers, fellow-travelers, but that's not a bad thing. Rather, it's a community get-together, made more interesting by the fact that the specific attendees who show up differ from event to event. To me, the important thing is to hear the words given a face and a voice, embodied in a delivery. New Critics be damned, the tone of the accompanying banter also adds to the effect.

When we got home from the event, I took Mike's book, The World Is Not Altogether Bad, and read a few poems to Hilary while she chopped some onions for the frozen pizza. 

We spent a few days at a cabin on the south shore of Lake Superior recently, and while we were there I was reminded that decades ago I wrote a poem about the nearby village of Port Wing. When we got home I scoured the basement "archives" and found it before long, in the midst of other scraps of juvenilia. I was inspired by the discovery to assemble a collection of my own work—thirty poems in forty years. I formatted the ones that seemed half-decent into a little book that will be available on Amazon soon. (Oh, goody!) The rest I dumped into the trash.

The last line of the port wing poem always bothered me, and it still does. Wrong rhythm, wrong effect. If you can think of an alternative please let me know soon, before I go ahead and approve the proof.

Here it is:

Port Wing

A stark white church near a wet highway.
The wooden floor of a grocery.
Whitefish wrapped in butcher-paper.
A squat, fieldstone bungalow.

Acres of pasture, dotted with homes.
A pine belt. Tourist cabins—For Sale.
Reeds, a bridge, a cluster of glamourless
Boats; a fisherman, reeling in.

At Port Wing, a red berry or a
Flock of cedar waxwings in a tree
Takes on a quality of madness...
endless waves against the levee.  

Friday, November 3, 2017

Minneapolis: Top Ten World City?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal ranked Minneapolis among the top ten travel destinations in the world. Amazing. We were planning a trip to the Greek islands, but decided to stay home and save the money.

Readers in the Twin Cities immediately made light of a Top Ten list that included not only Minneapolis but also Kuelap, Peru, and the Faroe Islands, which have no trees and specialize in whale blubber. But we ought to keep in mind that people in Kuelap are saying the same thing in reverse: "So what if we appear in a list that also includes ... Minneapolis? Where is that, anyway?" 

The article focuses on Minneapolis's trendy food scene, of which I have no knowledge. I used to work in the warehouse district on the north loop, where many new restaurants have sprung up amid the condo conversions and new construction, but in those days fine dining options were limited to Cuzzy's and Archie's Bunker.

The Journal made a point of excluding St. Paul from its litany of praises. That's stupid. Minneapolis and St. Paul are parts of a single conurbation consisting of a conglomeration of neighborhoods widely differing in atmosphere.

(Click map for a larger view)
In the interests of promoting world brotherhood, sisterhood, and general fellow-feeling,  I thought it might be useful to mention a few affordable neighborhood spots that Hilary and I visited this year, in case visitors from Madagascar and Dundee grow tired of the obligatory valet parking at the flashy new dining hotspots downtown and decide to venture out into the workaday parts of the city.

The focus here is on lunch, Happy Hour, easy parking, outdoor seating, and general ambiance. Food? Yes, the food tends to be good.


1) Draft Horse: The building is located in a vacant lot, and was formerly a stable for Grain Belt Brewery. It has a nice terrace, and you can often park right across the street. It sits next door to the Food Building, home to Red Table Meat Co. and Baker's Field Flour & Bread. Hence the charcuterie platter is pretty good, though I'm also a fan of the root vegetable salad. And the house-made chips.

Charcuterie board at Draft Horse
2) Café Alma: The word Yuppie comes to mind when you enter this lively café, which has lots of light and a long exposed brick wall. I can recall a whitefish tartine with fried egg that's no longer on the menu. I ought to try to lamb burger.

3) Hazel's: The perfect breakfast café, way up on 26th and Johnson, family-run Hazel's moved into the neighborhood after several decades way out in Alexandria.

4) Ginger Hop: A Thai place with an paneled, English-pub style bar on one side, a calm, spacious restaurant space on the other, and a more-than-decent Happy Hour.

5) Eli's: A triangular bar/cafe at the bend in East Hennepin Avenue with a black-and-white linoleum floor and an excellent menu.


6) Ward 6: It sits on a rise overlooking St. Paul, but looking out from the terrace you could easily be in Milwaukee or Detroit. It might be the best neighborhood place in the Cities, but it's a long ways from my neighborhood, and  I've only been there twice, so it's hard to say.

7) Delicata: A small but stylish service-counter place in a residential neighborhood between Como Park and the fairgrounds with distinctive pizzas and snacks.

8) St. Paul Grill: I revived my long-dormant hovering skills at the bar of this downtown institution and snagged a table for four during the MPR 50th Anniversary block party. The $14 martini knocked me for a loop, but the tremendous burger returned me to fine form for the Dessa concert going on outside.

9) Finnish Bistro: Lying in the heart of the St. Anthony Park neighborhood, it's the perfect place for a robust sandwich or some flaky pastry at a sidewalk table on a sunny Sunday morning. Ask anyone.

Sandcastle, on Lake Nokomis

11) Sand Castle: A picturesque café by the beach, featuring tacos, pulled pork sandwiches, and hot dogs garnished with tiny sweet/hot peppers. Enjoy your lunch while watching people trying to enjoy themselves on rented paddleboards out on the lake.

10) Soberfish: This Thai-sushi place on East Franklin has nice interior spaces, an interesting clientele, and a good Happy Hour—the ideal stop before a recital at nearby Ferguson Hall on the West Bank.

12) Fika: Herring and beets and gravlax and pickled onions and dill and all things Scandinavian, prepared with skill and presented with elán in the lobby of the American Swedish Institute.

13) It's Greek to Me: Here the outdoor garden patio is the thing, with gurgling fountains drowning out the traffic noise from Lyndale Avenue, just beyond the wrought iron grate.


14) Irving and Lake: A relaxing, unpretentious restaurant/bar in an increasingly hoity-toity part of town, it's a good place to enjoy a Happy Hour before attending a reading at nearby Magers & Quinn.

The lamb hash at Harriet Brasserie
15) Harriet Brasserie: Located in a former firehouse tucked on a side-street in the Upton neighborhood, this very small restaurant must rely on neighborhood walk-ins, since there's little on-street parking nearby. The lamb hash, with soft-poached egg, carrots, celery, sweet potatoes, corn, onions, mint dressing, and hollandaise sauce, is memorable. 

The wood-fired pizza at Sparks
 16) Sparks: Sequestered in the mysterious Bryn Mawr neighborhood, this mellow café devoted to wood oven cooking is on the way to nowhere, but the Happy Hour pizzas have an interesting cornmeal-tinged crust.