Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Shaking the Post-Election Blues

I. Outdoor Expo

When November gloom arrives, you could do worse than head down to the Outdoor Expo that Midwest Mountaineering hosts every year on the West Bank. The event consists of films, lectures, booths tended by outdoor organizations, and a store-wide sale on colorful tents, sleeping bags, hi-tech clothes, and assorted camping paraphernalia.

Approaching via Washington Avenue North, I was astounded to see how many glitzy coffee shops have sprung up along that warehouse canyon. And on a Saturday morning they all seemed to be hopping. 

Along the way we passed countless purple-clad football fans who had snagged affordable parking and were heading for their designated tailgate parties (four hours before the game). We parked in the gravel lot behind Caesar's (is Caesar's still there?), then hurried over to Hanson Hall to listen to a 90-minute talk about hiking in the Dolomites. The pictures were stunning and the presenter was personable. It would seem that no one knows more about the trails in that vast region than he does. He has also gotten to know the locals over the years, the best hotels and restaurants, the cable cars, and so on.

It was a pleasant way to spend a part of the morning. However, I doubt if I'll be spending $650 a day to take a guided tour of the region any time soon. Evidently many people have. Part of the guide's philosophy is that it's more fun to take day-hikes using a single village as a base than to do a cross-country trek. After the talk someone asked him where his "base" was. "I can't tell you that," he said. "I've spent too much time, too much time..." 

The second talk we attended was given by a man who'd hiked the Coast-to Coast trail across England with his wife. It took them fourteen days. His photos weren't quite as good. For that matter, the countryside, beautiful though it may be, wasn't quite so stunning as the Dolomites. But the talk was informative, and he offered some very useful information for arranging sherpa services and booking rooms along the way.

Both presentations made it easier for me to imagine visiting such places, and I guess that's the point.

In the nearby canvas tent, we ran into a succession of organizations that brought back memories of adventures I had decades ago. At the Border Trail booth I was reminded that I hiked that route before there was a trail of any kind along the south shore of South Lake, and was lucky to come upon a guy with a boat who ferried me across the neck of Magnetic Lake. In retrospect, the hike seems almost mythic.

At the booth for the Kekekabic Trail Association, I was reminded that I have hiked that 44-mile trail three times, but that was way back when, in the early 1970s.

A young woman in one booth was setting out small portions of tepid freeze-dried beans and rice on little paper plates, without much enthusiasm. They looked GROSS ... but I ate one. It was so-so, though it would probably taste much better after a long day on the trail. (I don't remember the brand. Backcountry Pantry?)

Vistabule Trailers had a booth. Also the Parks and Trails Association, of which we're members. Sierra Club. The Superior Hiking Trail. The two guys in the winter camping booth looked like they'd just climbed out of a tent after a rough night in the wild.

An entire chamber of the huge tent was devoted to cross-country skis. When we finally made it into the store itself, we soon ran into Hilary's cousin, John. He was standing in the clothing department chatting with a salesman and clutching a small hatchet with a fine leather sheath. "I've always wanted one of these," he said, gripping the shaft and suddenly taking on the look of a twelve-year-old boy.

It was the Hultafors Axe, I later learned, which the Swedes have been making since 1697. The store also stocks hand-forged axes from Granfors Bruk and Wetterlings.

I've never heard of any of these manufacturers. Maybe I should do some research. My hatchet is so dull, I think you could pound a nail with the blade. And the rubberized grip is no longer firmly attached to the stainless steel shaft, so you have to be careful when you're splitting wood to avoid sending the business end on a dangerous trajectory across the campsite.

November is when we dream of the adventures that lie ahead. Maybe we're looking less at the maps these days and more at the air mattresses. But that's because we've become more adept at finding our way, and we've also learned that there are plenty of staggering sights to be had just a few miles down the path.

II. Poetry Night

A poetry reading can be fun. When Margaret Hasse gives one, it's often more than that.

In part, this is because Margaret has gotten to know so many interesting people during her years as a poet, teacher, and arts organizer. At her recent reading at the Loft, she called upon a few of them to choose one of the poems from her new book, Between Us, and explain briefly how they came to know Margaret and why they chose that particular poem to read. 

Among those that shared this information with us were a woman from South Dakota—a good friend of Margaret's older sister who, decades after leaving home, ran into Margaret, first in a Nodin Press poetry anthology, and then in person on a bus in South Minneapolis. Another was Clarence White, who first met Margaret while he was a student in St. Cloud; now, decades later, he co-curates the Banfill-Locke poetry series with her.

Another long-time friend, a Jungian psychoanalyst by trade, read a dream poem about a bat; Margaret's son Alex, jazz trumpeter and tennis pro, read a poem about a boy being taught by his father to ride a bike, giving as a reason that "I think it's about me."

In short, the performance, far from being that of hermetic literary associations and references, demonstrated how many ways poetry can reach out beyond purely literary concerns to illuminate relationships and experiences of all kinds.

The poems Margaret read herself amplified the effect. Her poem "Come Home, Our Sons," which touches in a personal way upon the Philando Castile shooting, was a striking example of how poetry can take us beyond politics, without trivializing the political problems we struggle with. Another poem, slightly humorous, was about memory loss. But the image that sticks with me now came at the end of a poem about a young woman who cuts herself, not because she wants to die, but because she wants to draw "deep pain" out of herself and drain it, so she can live. "She will flush the blotting tissue," the poem concludes

in the toilet like red paper roses
some other girl might wear to a prom.

After the reading everyone gathered in the lobby for wine, nuts, chocolate cake, and publisher Norton Stillman's famous spinach dip. A long line curled through the middle of the room of guests eager to buy books signed and personalized by the author--their teacher, neighbor, friend. This is the point at which I usually make myself scarce. I know Margaret and her husband, Dave, fairly well, but did not expect to see too many other familiar faces. I was glad to meet up with a few old friends myself, and even brazenly horse-collared Margaret's sister, Ellen, whom I recognized by sight but had never met before. We were soon exchanging our enthusiasm for public libraries and Louise Penny mysteries. And she convinced me that I ought to pay another visit to her adopted home town of Iowa City.  

"But that's Trump country," I said.

"Oh, no," she replied. "There's a little corridor running from Iowa City north to Cedar Rapids, and on to ..."

III. ¡Sacabuche!

The James Ford Bell Library invited the Renaissance Canadian ensemble ¡Sacabuche! to give a performance as part of its "Celebrating Venice!" series, which also included lectures on subjects such as "Mapping Muslim Jerusalem in Late Medieval German Pilgrimage" and "A Knight of the Italian Renaissance: Pietro Bembo and the Order of Malta." I signed up for the lectures, which were free, but failed on each occasion to drag myself away from the computer, down to the U of M campus, and up to the fourth floor of Wilson Library.

We did attend the concert, and it turned out to be a treat. It was billed as a multimedia presentation, but that was only barely accurate. The major visual element was a large woodcut map of Venice circa 1500 that was projected onto either side of the nave of First Methodist Church on Lowry Hill, where the performance took place. Aside from a dozen or more musicians, both vocal and instrumental, two readers were involved in the show, and as they dramatized a particular text, a circle would appear on the maps indicating the location of the event or institution to which it referred.

The main draw, of course, was the music, and it was very fine indeed. Renaissance music comes in several varieties, of course, but you can be sure that the progressions and cadences will be altogether different, due to their polyphonic construction, from the ones baroque and classical composers liked to work with. Less dramatic, perhaps, more floating, texturally complex, and ethereal, notwithstanding the prominent role played by sackbutts of several sizes. Sacred or secular, these pieces by Monteverdi, Gabrieli, Mainerio, and other masters of the period carried a jewel-like perfection that could easily have been marred by bad entrances or shaky pitch.

The program also contained three new pieces by New Brunswick composer Kevin Morse, which served as refreshing points of contrast without disrupting the mood overmuch. Sephardic, Turkish, and Acadian folksongs were also on the bill. (Venice was the New York of its time, after all, the crossroads of the Western world.)

I even found the audience interesting. Who were these people, many of whom seemed to know one another? Professors, musicians, grad students who had attended the lectures, early music specialists or students of comparative literature? Some showed up in suit and tie (well, it was a Sunday afternoon) while others seemed perfectly comfortable in jeans and t-shirts.  

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