Hilary and I drove down to the Prior Lake Library the other day to say hi to some of her old friends and to hear local luminary Patricia Hampl read from her new book, The Art of the Wasted Day. We picked up some food at the deli of a Byerly’s in Bloomington on the way down, and we sat in the car high on a hill in a park above the lake watching a new generation of kids swing and skateboard and hand-over-hand across the monkey bars as we ate our mediocre meals before the event.
I had imagined that Hampl’s presentation would focus on the “art” of wasting a day—an art of which I consider myself a past master—but the sections she read focused largely on her Catholic childhood and how unhappy she was when she learned that daydreaming was included among the activities listed as sinful in the Baltimore Catechism she had to study for more than a year before her first communion. In another passage, she went on to explain that although the Declaration of Independence celebrated Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, the emphasis usually fell not on the happiness, but on the pursuit.
Perhaps the best anecdote Hampl shared was of working at the Minnesota Daily with the editor she describes as “the best I ever had”: Garrision Keillor. She was eighteen, he was twenty-two. One day she was frantically complaining of an approaching deadline and he caught her up short: “Having trouble with a deadline?’ he said in his mellow, authoritative voice. “You’d better slow down.”
Though Hampl is well past retirement age, she continues to teach at the U of M and has won enough grants and fellowships to found a neighborhood bank, yet it seems she still has precious little free time on her hands. Evidently she never slows down. Or doesn’t know how.
I’ve worked on the fringes of the publishing world for several decades now, and have heard nothing but good things about Hampl, whom her friends call “Trish.” More than a few of her blurbs have passed across my desk and onto the back cover of books I’m formatting, and they’re invariably distinctive, thoughtful, quotable. She has obviously spent some time on them. To judge from the autobiographical passages she read the other night, she has difficulty saying no to these and other requests, but also finds it hard extending the generosity she lavishes on others to herself. While her off-the-cuff remarks before and after the reading were witty and insightful, the texts she read seemed a little anxious. Sure, they were leavened with self-depreciatory humor, but such a posture eventually wears thin. At that point it’s time to drop the guilt and indecision and uninhibitedly WASTE A DAY.
Of course, other parts of the book might describe such occasions; Hampl mentioned in passing that one of the later chapters describes a trip she took down the Mississippi with her husband in a houseboat. And as I recall, her early book of poems, Resort, nurses similar themes to a mellow conclusion. In short, the reading did what readings are supposed to do: encourage us to move more deeply into the byways of the book.
Another humorous aside Hampl offered had to do with fans who tell her with feverish enthusiasm, “I read your book last night.” “What?” she’s tempted to reply. “I spent years working on it, and you read it in one night!?”
This book has been a long time in the works. I first heard about it at a book convention in 2014, when Marly Rusoff mentioned it to me. “Trish is doing a book called The Wasted Day,” she said. “It sounds like something right out of your Macaroni.”
I was reminded of that remark at the reading, and just a few minutes ago I dug up a few of the earliest print issues of Macaroni from a file cabinet in the basement. The summer 1990 issue is entirely devoted to just such a day.
Reading it made me want to cry. It was written by someone with interests and sensibilities similar to mine, but with a certain naiveté and a lot more daring and flair, as if he'd just been reading Blaise Cendrars or Paul Desnos.
These last few days have put my own wasted-day artistry to the test. Hilary is out of town, and I have quite a bit of time on my hands. Sure, I have books to edit and a website to update. I also came up with a List of Things I Might Do while Hilary is Out of Town, to wit:
- Reseed the front yard
- build a new planter for the deck
- transplant some hostas and violets out into the fringe of the back yard where nothing seems to grow except moss
- re-attach the spice rack to the kitchen wall
But I can't help feeling that I'm spinning my wheels. These expanses of solitude are a rare gift, and they ought to build like afternoon thunderheads into abject torment followed by sudden flashes of insight.
It isn't happening. Here are a few of my recent "reflections"—you be the judge:
- A pleasant morning picking up some groceries at Cub for a quinoa/black bean salad, some manure and top-soil at Ace hardware.
I just got done transplanting some hosta and periwinkle... Nothing is more fun than that ... and a buckeye tree that returns faithfully year after year that we initially admire and later cut down because it's in the wrong place.
Then I fetched an old copy of Making Things Grow Outdoors by Thalassa Cruso from the basement. Now largely forgotten, Cruso was once considered the Julie Child of the gardening world, perhaps because she had a TV show. When I first read her I admired her style, conversational yet slightly elevated.
- It's a hot afternoon. I'm on the deck with a glass of fizzy water enlivened by a splash of Campari. I played tennis briefly with a friend at noon—horrible courts in Bryn Mawr. Still, it was good to get out into the day.
- A quiet evening. Dipping into a musty copy of Gabriel Marcel's Creative Fidelity that I got in the mail the other day, I come upon this remark:
I think I may say without exaggeration that my whole philosophical career has been devoted to the production—I dislike using that physical term—of currents whereby life can be reborn in regions of the mind which have yielded to apathy and are exposed to decomposition.
And a few pages later:
Philosophy provides the means for experience to become aware of itself, to apprehend itself—but at what level of experience? and how can such a hierarchy be established or defined?...we must distinguish not only degrees of clarification but degrees of intimacy with oneself and with one's surroundings—with the universe itself.
It's time to quit being disappointed by the fact that you're not doing anything interesting with your free time. You can no longer claim it's because you have too many commitments. It must be because your mind is a BLANK!
It's getting dark, a little windy, as if a storm were approaching, maybe a tornado on a hot evening like this. The branches are going a little wild.
It's getting dark, a little windy, as if a storm were approaching, maybe a tornado on a hot evening like this. The branches are going a little wild.
- We must not forget how beautiful the trees were up north, pale yellow, just leafing out. The winding road on the way up to the top of Giant's Ridge. Deep pines, pale aspens. Hints of Colorado.
- Now I hear thunder. Time to shut down and unplug the computer.
- It's raining harder now. Moderately. I've got the door cracked open a few inches. It's cooled off quite a bit out there. Gentle thunder. Deep thunder. But the sky looks lighter in the west. A good rain.
- When I dip into Marcel, I feel that his methods are sound and his conclusions are subtle and valid. When I dip into Kierkegaard, I feel that he's just talking to hear himself talk. He relishes the feverish cleverness, the irony, but isn't taking the issues at hand seriously.
Am I taking the issues seriously? Not really. What are the issues at hand?
Up at 5:15. Well, I went to bed at 9. Books at my bedside: Concluding Unscientific Post-Script, William Gass's Tests of Time, Marcel's Creative Fidelity, Everybody's Pepys. But nothing held my interest except the yellowing bookmark I found in the Kierkegaard. "Discount Records $12.99. at 10:41 a.m. on March 16, 1985."
CDs weren't widely available then. Someone bought an LP. Was it me?
Max Frisch might have spun an entire novel out of that receipt. Which reminds me that I never read Wilderness of Mirrors or I'm Not Stiller, though both books are right here on the shelf ...
It rained all night, as far as I can tell. I ought to get out and spread some grass seed on those bare spots. No task seems more futile to me than over-seeding a wretched lawn. But it might be more pleasant to do it barefoot, before the sun comes up. (I have heard that grass seed germinates better that way.)
Marcel " "The mystery [of the life to come] is of such a nature that its rejection deprives human life not only of its principal dimension but also, little by little, of its entire significance and depth."
A beautiful male cardinal has been jumping around the lip of the bird bath for the last five minutes, warily turning his head in every direction. Just now he took the plunge, splashed around in the pool for about twenty seconds, and then flew off. For myself, I'm warily circling around any number of projects but remain unengaged, unwilling to take the plunge on one thing and give up the likelihood of pursuing something else.
No sooner do I write these words than I leap up with determination to continue work on the wooden planter I'm making to replace the one that rotted here on the deck. The minute I head into the garage to get the lumber the miasma lifts and my life once again has purpose. After sawing through two 1 x 12s, I'm reminded that the last time I did this I threw my back out. That's enough for today.
Right around 4 o'clock the mood changes. Whatever you have or haven't done, you're entering a freer zone, beyond tasks or apologies. It's like getting home from work.
Marcel again, in delicately humorous mode: "Just when we want an exact statement as to what "spirit" really is, people generally remain vague to the point of impoliteness ..."
Marcel's meditations on death are subtle, but I don't think they would mean much to someone who's actually dying. I'm thinking of my dad, who lost his capacity for speech in his final months. In the end he was reduced to being wheeled around in a wheel chair with a bewildered look on his face, and our job was to do our best to preserve his dignity, to remind him who he had been, and perhaps still was.
Marcel rejects Heidegger's famous theory of "being toward death," arguing that it's based on a primitive and false notion of the relationship between my body and my self. At a later point he observes that "the man of authentic existence in Heidegger's mind is not the man who truly lives with other people, but rather a man 'who knows true life only in dealing with himself.'
Marcel's own views can be reduced to four concepts—attentiveness, availability, participation, and hope—all of which flourish in human company. I was going to say "in society" but society is an abstraction that tends to depersonalize things. Marcel elevates hope to the level of a theological virtue. I suspect he sees it as an attitude or orientation or personality rather than a theory about living to be either proven or invalidated.
In another essay Marcel quotes Martin Buber approvingly:
"A philosophical view of the world built on time can never quite convey the same feeling of safety that one built on space can."
The trouble is, we live in both space and time, and our worldview must account for both. Hampl touched on this point during her reading, reiterating a piece of her father's wisdom. There are three phases of life, he told her—youth, middle age, and "You look good!"
It got the biggest laugh of the night, and there's some truth in it.
Many years ago a friend of mine told me: Old age begins at 80. At the time I had no idea what he meant—I would have proposed 65 as a good threshold—but he was a cardiologist and had seen lots of very old people. He merely meant that at that age everything begins to fall apart. It's a matter of physiology.
But be that as it may, "You look good!' is more than mere flattery or dissimulation. When we meet up with someone we've known and loved for decades, our vision extends beyond physiology to encompass a rich history and a glow of enduring affection. It's true. You do look good.
I seem to be settling in, in so far as I'm still awake at 9:30. Hoping to keep the "sprit" alive, this afternoon I declined a friend's invitation to sample a few rare wines from Columbia and also deferred a proposal for a round of golf to next week.
Saturday. An early morning bike ride around the 16-mile loop at Elm Creek, before the day gets hot. It was almost chilly in the shadowy stretches. The choke-cherries are in bloom. Lots of birds singing: yellowthroats, red-eyed vireos, five or six veerys, an oriole or two, and at least twenty clay-colored sparrows. I brought my binoculars and stopped once or twice to ferret one out—they sit on bushes out in the fields, usually at eye level—but I never saw one.
The next stop on my morning outing was the bridge over Bassett Creek a few blocks from our house. That's where I sample water clarity as a "citizen scientist" for the DNR. I checked the creek yesterday because of the rain, which tends to stir things up, and the reading was terrible: 22cm, one of my worst readings. This morning, on the other hand, it had already risen to the maximum reading, +100 cm. That surprised me.
It has also surprised me again and again, over the years, that as people pass by me on the bridge, they don't seem the least bit curious. Of course, they're often engaged in their own conversations. But if I were to spot someone standing on a bridge with a long plastic tube and a yellow bucket on a rope, I'd be likely to stop and ask him what he was doing.
This morning, things were different. While I was lowering the bucket into the creek, a young man rode up on his bike and stopped. Maybe that's because (as I soon learned) he works as a geologist for the DNR. His name was Ron. He had a long last name that I didn't quite catch.
"Is that Romanian?" I asked.
"Close. Guess again."
"You're almost there ... Lithuanian."
A minute later his wife arrived pushing a baby in a stroller equipped with an umbrella, from which I deduced that they had not come far. (That also explained why he'd stopped on the bridge.)
"Do you live nearby?" I asked.
"We live in Robbinsdale, just north of here on Wirth Parkway."
"I live up that way, too, by Margaret Mary Church in Golden Valley. Right at the top of the hill."
Then I said, "Is Robbinsdale getting cool, or what?"
He smiled. "We like to think there are some businesses going in that care about quality..."
"Well, you've got that brewery, Wicked—" I couldn't think of the name.
"The Wicked Wart."
"Yeah, and then Travail, of course." I thought I'd pronounced the name properly, in the French manner, but evidently that's not how you're supposed to say it; he corrected me.
"I haven't eaten there since they started issuing tickets," I said. "The food was good ... but the music was too LOUD."
Ron just smiled.
Just then his wife chimed in: "There's a new place downtown called Nonna's. They have a breakfast bowl that's to die for."
Another couple had come up beside me, and as Ron and his wife headed off and I began pouring the bucket of water into the tube, the man said, "Turbidity."
For a split-second I wasn't sure what "turbidity" meant! I like to think I'm measuring how clear the water is, but I suppose you could just as well put it the other way around.
"This creek has really gotten cleaned up," the man said. "You never used to see fish in here."
"Mostly what you see now are suckers," I said.
"But there's some shiners down there right now. Do you see those flashes of light near that log? They were never here before. They've cleaned up the creek all the way into Crystal. Do you know about that project?"
"Well, I've seen the big signs they put up. There was one right there in front of that willow." I pointed. "And I've seen the embankment rolls they put down and the rock walls they built just upstream from here. On the other hand, thirty years ago that lagoon was full of water most of the time. Now it's mostly a muddy island except during heavy rain."
"Maybe that's the idea," he said. "Water collects there during heavy rain rather than flooding over the parkway like it used to do." Good point.
Just then a spotted sandpiper flew past. He arched back and forth over the creek in front of us several times. A beautiful flier, always keeping his wings low and stiff.
"There's a spotted sandpiper," I said.
"A what?" his wife said.
"You won't believe what I've seen here, three times," I said.
They both looked at me.
I don't think they believed me.
My next stop was Eat My Words Bookstore, just across the Mississippi in Northeast. I'd been carrying a box of books in the back seat for quite a while. "Scott will be in soon," his daughter said. "Just put it on the table over there."
I took a quick look around the shop. As usual, the titles that jumped out at me were the ones I recognized because I sold to Scott in the past. Should I buy back that copy of Jerusalem Delivered with the blank pages at the end that I bought in Santa Fe years ago but never even glanced at before reselling? He wants $5. I always considered that blank signature as an inside joke. No one reads Jerusalem Delivered cover to cover. Look at me. I stuck with Orlando Furioso through two thick paperback volumes but gave up two cantos from the end.
My final mission took me to the opposite end of town, to North St. Paul, which might well be considered the Robbinsdale of the metro's East Side. Friends had been telling me for years about an eccentric wine merchant who dealt in "bin ends" that he bought wholesale and sold at a discount at a little shop called BrightWines. But "shop" isn't the right word to describe his business. Wines sit in stacked cases or on home-made pine shelves. The space has no windows and it's dark inside, but that doesn't matter much because prices aren't marked.
It's a very "personal" operation. Marcel would have approved.
Here's how it works. I step inside and a disembodied voice from the office says "Hello." A tallish man appears with a friendly, squarish face and thick head of hair lined with a few fine streaks of gray. A youthful forty-five? I shake his hand. "I'm on your email list but I've never been here before."
"Welcome," he replies. "I'm Dave."
"I was looking over your offerings, and I'm interest in the Phantom..."
"Oh, the deep, rich, California chardonnay from Bogle. I've got it right here."
"And what about that red from Languedoc you mentioned in the newsletter?"
"Oh, yes. Parker gave in 91 points. You'll love it."
Bottles begin to go into a box. By the time we're through I've assembled a case consisting of Mas Champart Saint-Chinian Causse de Bousquet 2012, Brunelli Poggio Apricale Toscane 2106, Mâcon-Chaintre Reserve des Rochers 2015, Bila-Haut Cote de Roussillon 2105, Clos de Fleur Sonoma County Chardonnay 2102, and the 2016 Bogle Clarksburg Phantom Chardonnay that I mentioned earlier.
If you've never heard of these wines, don't worry. I haven't either. But the hope is that the Rosso de Montelcino will have a hint of the much more expensive Brunello from that region, and that the Mâcon-Chaintre will be a step above the more generic Mâcon-Village.
In any event, they sure sound pretty. And in case you're wondering, the prices range from 7.99 to 14.99. I might have avoided the Clos de Fleur if I'd known it was six years old. Then again, it was the cheapest of the lot. Take a chance!
Driving through North St. Paul brought back memories from my youth. The village I grew up in, Mahtomedi, is nearby. It had only a single store worthy of the name, Ralph's Grocery, and we used to drive to North St. Paul to get our clothes and shoes at Miller's. Miller's is long gone, but the town's main street now has more trees and perhaps more bars, though it's hard to tell—at age thirteen, I wasn't paying much attention. As I crossed highway 36 I went past the high school, where I was once forced to play a doubles tennis match on hardwood gym floors in front of the entire team. The ball skids a lot more on that surface, but the North St. Paul team had been practicing on it for weeks.
Ah, the humiliations of youth.