Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt sets himself a formidable task—to make the discovery of an obscure manuscript in a German monastery  in 1417 into an event of epochal significance. He doesn’t quite make good on this attempt, but his historical excavations result in a narrative of surprising interest just the same.

Few today have heard of Poggio Bracciolini, the man who made the discovery in question; he was probably not a household name even in his own time, though he distinguished himself as a high-ranking papal secretary and later served as chancellor of Florence.  Among his fellow humanists Poggio was certainly well-known, carrying on a running correspondence for decades with Niccolo Niccoli, for example, and engaging in a highly publicized dispute with Lorenzo Valla. But nothing that he wrote has proven interesting or significant enough to hold the attention of later generations beyond a small circle of academic experts. For example, in his landmark 400-page History of the Renaissance in Italy, Jacob Burckhardt mentions Poggio only in passing, with reference to an essay on nobility. Popular modern anthologies of the era contain essays by Valla, Pico, Manetti, Telesio, and other more or less obscure figures, but Poggio is not among those considered worthy of inclusion.

Poggio’s outstanding claim to fame for us is that he came across a copy of The Nature of Things by Lucretius moldering on a dusty shelf—a poem that was widely referred to and admired in ancient times but was entirely lost during the Dark Ages.

Among the several virtues of Greenblatt’s book is that he fleshes out the world of the early Renaissance—the in-fighting among members of the papal curia, the high-strung literary correspondence between humanists describing their latest bibliographic finds and projects, the responsibilities and excesses of the Florentine municipal administration, and the hermetic world of monastic life, where piety was too often a smokescreen for ambition, perversity, and sloth.

Shifting gears from chapter to chapter, Greenblatt also does an excellent job of describing the impact made by Lucretius’s book-length poem on cultivated Romans fifteen hundred years earlier, and contrasts those very modern-sounding atomic, if not Darwinian, theories—which Lucretius derived from the theories of Epicurus and Democritus—against the generally polytheistic mind-set of those times.

As luck would have it, among the five Popes whom Poggio served was John XXIII (now classified by the Catholic Church as an anti-Pope) who fled the Council of Constance before he was formally deposed along with two other claimants to the seat. In describing this string of events, which also includes the burning of the Czech protestant Jan Hus at the stake, Greenblatt once again fleshes out a time very different from our own—or maybe not.

Greenburg’s vivid description of such events, which are usually described in academic texts fairly cursorily and by means of cliché, is worth the price of the book.  But there are two important issues with which he finds it more difficult to deal adequately. These are

a) To what degree did Poggio’s discovery of The Nature of Things really “transform” the world, and

b) To what degree is this a good as opposed to a bad thing.

The implicit assumption is that the world-view described by Lucretius is not only more modern, but also more accurate, than the one provided by the Catholic Church. And it is further suggested, or at least implied,  that were it not for the serendipitous discovery of a unique manuscript in some unnamed German monastery, the Epicurean vision would have remained a mystery to us all.

Both of these notions are more than a little far-fetched.

In his defense of the idea that Poggio’s discovery was monumental, Greenblatt quotes a few lines from Romeo and Juliet that could have been lifted from Lucretius. Yet Shakespeare’s favorite and most often-quoted poet by far was Ovid. And it's interesting to note that in an overview of the period such as E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture, neither Epicurus nor Lucretius is mentioned at all. That being the case, it comes as no surprise to find that Poggio doesn't merit mention either.

Greenblatt also highlights a few passages in which Montaigne seems to lean heavily on Lucretius, and here he is on firmer ground. One scholar determined that Montaigne quotes Lucretius 149 times in his essay, more than any other Roman poet. But Horace comes in a close second at 148. Both men were Epicurians. This seems to suggest that The Nature of Things Lucretius provided Montaigne—and the modern world—with more attractive ways to express things that were already widely accessible from other sources.

Greenblatt brings his book to a close by observing that Thomas Jefferson owned copies of The Nature of Things in five languages, and sometimes described himself as an Epicurean. But that doesn’t tell us much about where he got his political views. (Epicurus was explicitly apolitical.) One historian of the religious views of the Founding Fathers writes:
In his youth, Jefferson studied the philosophers of clas­sical antiquity. And just as the Greek and Roman style shaped his architectural preferences in designing Monticello, the ra­tionality and balance of Socrates, Seneca, Cicero, and Epicurus appealed to his desire for a life disciplined by inward harmony and self-control.
Then again, Jefferson also edited the Gospels to excise all the parts he didn’t like. In this scheme of influences and inspirations Lucretius was undoubtedly present, but certainly not essential.

One final but very important issue clouds the appeal of The Swerve: Greenblatt seems to think that the vision offered by Epicurus, through the medium of the golden poetry of Lucretius, offers a better vision of life than the one offered by the Christian program that dominated European life following the collapse of Rome. But he never provides any convincing proof to that effect. He makes the mistake of equating the genius of Christianity with the dogmas of the Catholic Church, and he too often confuses the hedone that Epicurus considered the ultimate end of human life with bodily pleasure  pure and simple. If we were to go into the matter of Epicureanism at any greater length, we would be doing more than Greenblatt has done. Suffice it to say that Epicureanism is a philosophy of the healthy and the well-off. Its impulses are quietistic. Christianity, for all its faults, is rooted in the peculiar sanctity of the human individual—a creature capable of reflection, conscience, genius, loyalty, sacrifice. These are social virtues. The Epicurean philosophy of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain will never be of much use to those for whom physical pain is endemic, yet who are inspired to pursue something more broadly meaningful in the midst of that pain.

But if Greenblatt overstates the case for the significance Poggio’s discovery, it doesn’t matter much. His book holds our interest due largely to his colorful rendering of fifteenth-century Humanism, thriving in the midst of a world of mostly hide-bound Catholic orthodoxy and largely venal religious institutions. It’s a book about people who loved books and believed the elevated Latin of Roman times had more power to express things fully and freely than did either the scholarly Latin or the local dialects of their own day.

It’s an attractive vision, and I was inspired, after finishing The Swerve, to pull my own copy of The Nature of Things off the shelf. I’m sorry to report that I didn’t get far before putting it down again.

A rotten translation? Perhaps. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Arbor Barbers

I suspect that in a former life I was an arborist. Or maybe a lumberjack. I like trees—the character of the individual species, the shape of the growth, their growth and decay.

Pruning trees is a rugged art. Maybe editing books is the next best thing. You're removing things to heighten the focus and bring out the beauty. But when you're pruning trees, each cut is irrevocable.

You can imagine how excited I was when I saw a truck pull up in front of the house the other day  hauling a trailer carrying a mobile cherry-picking pod. On the door of the truck it said Arbor Barbers. Before long there were four trucks lined up in the street.  A couple of guys were looking up over their heads, and it occurred to me I ought to go out and make sure they weren't planning to go to work on any of our trees.

"Oh, no," the guy said. "We've got a couple of jobs down the street. You can't park right where you're working." Of course.

"Hey, I've got an idea," I said. "I've got three walnut trees on the side of the house." I pointed. "Volunteers. Maybe you could cut down the one furthest from the street. As long as you're already here.  They aren't big, about the size of your arm. How much would that cost?"

In the course of my request I'd mumbled something about "fifty bucks" and I was surprised when the guy said, "I could cut it down and remove it for $40. We'll be here all day." OK.

A client stopped over an hour later, though he had some trouble finding the house with all the trucks scattered along the street. I told him I was having the tree guys cut down a walnut in the side yard.

"That's a great idea," he replied. "We had one cut down. Every fall the fruit fell off and dented the car, and the husks stained the driveway."

I'd never considered that element, and I began to wonder if I should see about having all three trees cut down. All morning long I could hear the intermittent grind of the chain saw, and later the noise of a hydraulic lift depositing debris into the back of a truck. By early afternoon I was beginning to wonder if they'd ever get around to my little project, but by that time I was figuring I could probably do it myself with a hand saw, and then I could keep the wood. I imagined myself hooking up a few ropes to make sure the tree didn't fall on the house or the neighbor's garage, then cutting the notch, hoping all the while that the neighbors didn't come home just as the tree was descending on their driveway.

But a thirty-foot tree weighs a lot more than you think. Did I have any rope of that quality?

Things were getting quiet. I was taking a nap on the floor in the den with the sun on my face, dreaming about firewood, when I heard a chainsaw start up, maybe a little closer this time. When I returned to the office I heard someone clumping on the roof above my head. I saw a cloud of sawdust fly past the window. A thick chunk of wood landed on the frozen ground with a thump. 

Then I saw the guy climbing down the tree through the window. A few minutes later there was a knock on the door.

"Well, I cut down the tree," the man said. "But my brother says we've got another job to do today. Do you have a firepit?"

I told him I did. And a fireplace. And a Jøtul stove.

"Well, why don't you just pay me $20 and clean it up yourself."

I handed him a double sawbuck and thanked him for his trouble.


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Les Forts de Latour

I feel a little silly with an empty bottle of wine sitting right here next to the computer. I will definitely remove it the next time a client stops by to work on a book. But I like to be reminded of the remarkable taste, and more than that, the remarkable bouquet that the bottle once contained.

When you attempt to write about wine, you ought to be aware that you're exploring an experience that no one can describe and few can afford. Oh, there are plenty of decent wines available at every price point. Often wines that cost $25 aren't "twice as good" as those that cost $12.50, but it's likely they offer nuances of flavor that make them worth the extra expense from time to time. The same could be said of those $12 bottles, when compared to Trader Joe's "Reserve" Chardonnay at $6.

But the other day I had an experience from the upper end of the wine trough. I opened a bottle of Les Fort de Latour 1999 that had been sitting in increasing isolation in my basement "cellar" for years. The cellar stock has been dwindling because I gave up buying wines for aging. Why? Worthy bottles were becoming absurdly expensive and the wines themselves, when I opened them years later, were often mediocre. 

My standard explanation was that I was storing the wines right next to the furnace, but if I'd really believed that I would have moved them. The more likely explanation is that when you hunt for "deals" in the upper reaches of the wine world you're likely to end up with off-years, badly handled wines, famous varietals from fly-by-night producers—in a word, clinkers.

I wouldn't say that the quest was useless. There were usually hints of great breeding, elusive wisps of remarkable complexity, though now showing a little fatigue, like the last few films of Jean Renoir or Howard Hawks. I could probably mention fifteen or twenty classed growth from Bordeaux that I've enjoyed over the years, often as a guest of my friend Tim, who maintains a more active interest in this important field of study.

In any case, this particular wine was different. It may not be the best wine I ever drank, but I can say with confidence it's the best wine I can remember drinking. 

How to describe the bouquet? No point taking about melons, blackberries, or leather. It was as if a hundred feather-light purple pixies were dancing in my nose. Was it a foxtrot or a gavotte? Hard to tell. It was the olfactory equivalent of listening to the first movement of Ravel's Gaspar de la Nuit, after having drunk a bottle of wine. Diaphanous, sweet, rich, complex, and rather static, worthy of contemplation in and of itself. The act of drinking the wine came almost as an afterthought.

I will say no more about that evening of bliss. It did not commemorate a birthday, anniversary,  promotion, or retirement. But it will remain memorable long after I remove the empty bottle from the desk here. 

And it makes me wonder if it might be worthwhile rebuilding my stock of better-than-average wines just a little. The kind that might benefit from twenty years in the cellar. We'll be getting a nice property tax refund in the mail soon. Surdyk's is having a sale... 

But twenty years is a long time to age any wine. Maybe we should shoot for ten.         

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Oscar Countdown

Does anyone really care who wins the Oscars? I don't even know who the MC is going to be. But it's fun to reflect on the film year now past, and what better time to do it?

As I look down a long list of 2016 releases, I'm reminded of a few films that I had forgotten about entirely, and a few others that I wish I had.

The very good ones include—

Rams: Set in Iceland, this story of brothers who are neighbors but haven't spoken in decades is rich is diseased sheep, thick sweaters, big beards, festering grudges, and snow.

A Man Called Ove: A crabby old man loosens up while baby-sitting for his Iranian neighbors.

The Music of Strangers: The lives of folk musicians, assembled and mediated by Yo-Yo Ma.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople: A charming tale of a juvenile delinquent given over to a foster family on the fringes of the New Zealand bush, and the numerous adventures he has with his "uncle."

Eight Days a Week: The Beatles at their youthful best

Marvelous Boccaccio:  The Taviani brothers cloth a few choice tales from the Decameron in painterly Renaissance style.

Florence Foster Jenkins: This underrated film is a study in deception, but also affection. It reminds us that an "arts community" is often less about the art than about the community. 

The Eagle Huntress: When was the last time you were in Mongolia? When was the last time you saw 48 golden eagles in a single frame? In any case, the film should have been nominated for best costume design.

Paterson: A New Jersey bus driver who writes poetry while his beautiful wife bakes cupcakes and learns to play the guitar. A paean to the artist in us all, it offers an effective cinematic correlative to the Ron Padgett poems that figure prominently in the script.

Less interesting were—

Dr. Strange: Fun enough. But I am Cumberbatched out. Sherlock has been going downhill since the second episode, and Cumberbatch's Hamlet was overwrought and under-nuanced. (I guess that means the same thing.) Dr. Strange is perfect Saturday matinee fare, but it also serves to remind us that special effects do not inevitably enhance a film experience. Here the collapsing cityscapes and dynamo hand gestures detract from the fight scenes. Watching it made me want to see House of the Flying Daggers, Heroes, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon again.   

Love and Friendship: Jane Austen without the charm, complexity, sentiment, or insight.

A Bigger Splash: Lots of vain, unhappy people who find it strangely difficult to enjoy a Mediterranean vacation. 

Then there are the nominated films. I saw six of the nine. In terms of artistic perfection the best of the lot was Hell or High Water. This is a film about two brothers, their love for one another, and the difficulties that arise due to their differing temperaments. It's the kind of film in which every throwaway line sounds perfectly natural, but also adds subtly to our understanding of where people come from and what they're thinking. This quality extends from Chris Pine and Ben Foster (who also played a crazy cowboy in 3:10 to Yuma) to Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, the Texas Rangers who track them down. Even the bank president and the waitress in the diner have some good lines. There is a fair amount of bloodshed in the film, but, like the dialog, it's subtly modulated and consistently kept in check by the pathos of the unfolding story.

Manchester By the Sea is an unusual and powerful film about grief, which is not to say that it's fun. It's difficult to watch a film in which the central character says little and is so consistently "low." Difficult but rewarding.

Arrival is a science fiction tale about alien visitors, though viewers looking for an action flick on the order of Independence Day or Starship Troopers are likely to be disappointed. The sky is often gray, and the tone of the film is brooding and personal. Yet Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and his crew do a good job of establishing a sense of profound foreboding, as if the end of civilization as we know it is just one diplomatic gaff away. The linguistic and metaphysical notions that drive the plot are highly questionable, but it's a lot of fun watching them "come alive" briefly on screen. It's the kind of film that gets better as you stand in the parking lot ten minutes after it's over, discussing what actually happened. Perhaps a film worth seeing more than once? 

La La Land is a piece of colorful California fluff, filled with romantic clichés of the finest quality. If you can't enjoy this, then maybe you just don't like movies. If you think it's great, perhaps you haven't seen very many.

Hidden Figures follows the lives of three talented black women who worked in the space program at a time when the word "computers" referred to people. At true story, moving, inspirational. It's a conventional film, but a good one, and would make an interesting double feature paired with The Right Stuff.

Moonlight I didn't much like. In the first place, I don't like persecution/revenge films. Here the central character mopes but seldom talks, is harassed but never responds, and as time goes on it's not very interesting to watch. Who are his friends, how does he spend his free time? We have no idea, which is why the attention tends to remain focused on his mother, the drug dealer who befriends him, etc. The central character's third incarnation, as a prison-hardened drug dealer, is hardly recognizable as the same person. 

Jimmy Kimbel will be hosting tonight's show. (I just looked it up.)  

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Ice Shanty Village

Although it sometimes hardly seems like an event at all, the Ice Shanty Village often punches above its weight.  In recent years it's been located on the northwest lobe of the White Bear Lake cloverleaf—the part that's practically dried up. The ice houses are widely spaced and spread out in no particular pattern discernible from the ground, and as you approach on foot from the parking lot in the nearby county park just off Highway 96 there doesn't seem to be much going on. This is, in part, because the huge expanse of ice on which the event is held dwarfs the visitors, but also because lots of people are inside the shanties enjoying the art.

We arrived on a sunny afternoon, made more brilliant by the reflected light of the snow-covered lake. (I have noticed that February light is often grand, maybe because of the medium-low angle and the dry air. You can almost feel the cells of your facial skin waking up.)

Walking out through the playground and over the ice berm, we missed the official entrance entirely—it would have involved a detour—and headed directly out to the village, which was situated a hundred yards and more out on the ice. The heavy bass sounds of a hip-hop track boomed across the lake from the dance shanty at the far end of the conurbation. 

We'd timed our visit to coincide with a flamenco performance that was listed on the schedule. Seeing no one that fit that description we inquired in the headquarters shack. "Well, they're supposed to start at 11:30, which is now. See that woman with the furry hat," the woman said, pointing through the window. "She's one of the dancers. I think they're going to meet up out there."

We wondered off to view the various shanties. Among my favorites were the following:

Shanty National Park: Inside this small space a woman was heating up some water on a camp stove. I asked her what she was making. "Nothing. I'm just trying to get some humidity into the room." The interior was decked out like a tropical forest—hence the need for humidity—and if I had taken more time to let my eyes adjust to the low light, I'm sure I would have seen an assortment of plastic animals hiding amid the foliage. I did admire the river (actually a long loop of paper painted with blue water and white rapids) that was flowing by along the side of the woods. In order to keep the water moving, someone had to turn a crank manually outside the building. Once we'd emerged into the sun again, I took a turn at the crank myself, though I didn't last long.

Pod from the Future Shanty: Two young men had evidently arrived on the lake from 600 years in the future in a little plywood pod. The room was equipped with a science fiction library that brought back memories of my teen years—Dune, Childhood's End, The Martian Chronicles. Visitors were invited to sit at the controls of the pod, and also to write down questions about the future on pieces of paper and stuff them into a box positioned nearby.

"Anything? Like, when will Trump be impeached? or What will the Fidelity Star Fund do next year?"

"Sure. Though we need to respect the future and not throw things terribly out of whack." All sci-fi enthusiasts are familiar with the long-term dangers of changing even little things about the past.
I learned later than these two young men drive up from Indiana every Friday night, and head for home again every Sunday afternoon after the village closes down.

Mythology Shanty: The ceiling of this shanty is covered with images of mythological figures, both traditional and modern. It's creator, who was standing inside, was impressed that I recognized Perseus holding the head of Medusa. I was even more impressed that he could recite the names of the three fates silhouetted on the opposite side of the dome: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. (I was hoping he'd ask me to name the three musketeers.) 

Arcade Shanty: The interior of this shanty seems to be lit by a blue florescent light. There is an air hockey table against one wall that you can play with any stranger who takes the other end. I found that I'm very bad at this game.

Mood Shanty: In this shanty you're invited to place your hand on a stove, at which point the stove pipe will change colors, indicating your mood.

Chef Shanty: In this shanty people were making potato prints. The proprietor told me that a wide variety of activities have been scheduled for upcoming weeks, some involving food you can actually eat.

Conversation Shanty: Here you sit on a wooden bed and talk to a young woman behind the one-way mirror. The point is to engage in conversation with strangers. I enjoyed it, though it reminded me vaguely of a semi-risque scene from Wim Wenders's film Paris, Texas.

Solar Power Shanty: This dwelling consisted of a pup tent made of clear plastic sheeting. A man was sitting in the door wrapped in a down sleeping bag. He was fiddling with some thick orange-red slabs of plastic that, so he told us, generate electricity, even on cloudy days. Someone at MIT invented the material, but then shelved the project. A single manufacturer in London has a license to sell it. That's where he gets his panels.

Memento Shanty: Weird and commonplace objects hang from the clear plastic ceiling of this shanty. The artist who constructed it told me that he gathered the junk from friends. Each artifact evokes a fond memory for the person who donated it.

"Do you know what the specific memories are?" I asked.

"I haven't the slightest idea," he replied.

Car Wash Shanty: All you have to do is walk through this open-ended shanty the way a car goes through a car wash. I did so, and felt strangely cleansed as I emerged into daylight again on the other side. Sort of like taking communion.

Among the shanties I skipped were the Justice Shanty (I'm tired of politics), the Slumber Party Shanty (clearly meant for young girls), the Dance Shanty (I didn't feel like dancing to hip-hop in a thick down jacket), and the Vehicle of Expression Bus, which seemed to be about self-expression—an activity I try to avoid. (Just kidding.)

As we began to retrace our steps through the village, we noticed that the flamenco group had assembled and was now performing on the roof of the headquarters shanty. We listened for a few minutes. People came and left. A man rode by on a wolf-bicycle. It was fun.

After considering several restaurants in downtown White Bear Lake, we ended up eating lunch at a Taco John's near the Kowalski's on Highway 61. As we were pulling out of the lot, I said, "I think my mom is buried nearby."

"Let's go pay her a visit," Hilary said. We found the cemetery without difficulty—a small quiet site with a few large trees here and there—but we couldn't locate her headstone, which was probably buried under the snow.

She was an artist herself. I think she would have enjoyed the show.   

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Minnesota's Great Northern Festival

For me, the Loppet began unexpectedly on Friday evening, when I emerged from the basement wearing my headlamp (I'd been looking for a book) to the sound of explosions. Having examined the Loppet schedule in detail earlier that day, I knew immediately what it was. They were shooting off fireworks down in Theodore Wirth Park, a mile from the house, and I could see the colorful bursts of light through the trees from the darkened dining room window.

The moon was out, somewhat more than a quarter, and Venus was still bright in the western sky, but the fireworks were more colorful—garish reds and greens—though fairly low in the sky and partially obscured by the naked trees. I was tempted to run and get my camera, but then I realized this was the grand finale! The fireworks were scheduled to commence at 8 p.m. It was now 8:10. A brief display, which is all anyone needs, and a perfect introduction to a weekend of winter fun ... with or without much snow.

You could explore the website associated with the City of Lakes Loppet for quite a while without coming upon a succinct definition of what a loppet is. By definition, a loppet is a long-distance cross country skiing event. In these parts it's also an organization devoted to winter sports, and it seems that the Loppet has established a large degree of control over the real estate on which the Theo Wirth Par 3 golf course is located.  It's in charge of making snow at the site all winter, and it hosts quite a few national and international ski events, not to mention frequent high school tourneys. I have already skied the trails six or seven times this winter and I can attest to their quality, even in times of meager snow. This winter they rearranged some of the loops, making them better than ever.

An abbreviated lists of the events sponsored by the Loppet this weekend would include the Speedskating Loppet 25K National Championship Event on Lake Calhoun, a set of sprints sponsored by local vendor Sisu, a classic marathon sponsored by Hoigaard’s, a telemark clinic, a snow sculpture contest, and an evening luminary loppet on Lake of the Isles that we've joined a few times.

There is also a Kubb tournament out on Lake Calhoun, the Puoli Loppet Classic, the Pearson’s Crew Ski Loppet, a Ski-O Loppet, Speedskating Loppet, the National One-Dog ski jouring Championship, the Rossignol Junior Loppet, various Short Skate and Long Skate Speedskating Loppets, a Snowshoe Loppet, a Fat Tire Loppet, Chuck & Don’s Point-to-Point Loppet and Subaru Two-Dog National Championship, and a Dogsled Loppet.

In order to ramp up the excitement and create an even more impressive display of winter energy and craziness, the Loppet has teamed up this winter with the St. Paul Winter Carnival and the National Pond Hockey championships under the rubric of a single moniker—the Great Northern.  I don't imagine it can do these events much harm, but I doubt whether people will be more likely to visit a frigid part of the country to see some ski races at Wirth Park if a Red Bull Ice Crashed Ice event (also a part of the new consortium) is going on later that day in St. Paul, on the other side of town.   

 Saturday afternoon I wandered down the hill along Bassett Creek to the Loppet event center. You could hear the voice of an announcer over the loud-speakers a half-mile away, but when I turned the corner leading up to the Surley beer tent and the racing headquarters I heard a new and unexpected sound—a chorus of barking dogs. I'd lucked into the ski-joering competitions. 

One race was underway, but there were forty or fifty skiers standing in the broad starting lane, trying to keep their dogs under control as they awaited the mass start of the next race. Spectators were lined up two and three deep all along the snow fences on either side of the track. A lot of handsome dogs were yipping and pacing, bewildered to be in such a large crowd of fellow canines, probably, and eager to get going.  it all seemed a little awkward and silly, but also very sporting and colorful.

The snow wasn't good, but it was good enough, and there were howls and shouts of encouragements as the skiers competing in the previous race sped down through the trees in the distance, made the corner and continued up the slight incline to the finish line. Theirs was a two-lap race, however, and after disappearing behind the announcer's booth, they reappeared and headed back off into the wooded hills again. Most of the skiers were going faster than their dogs at this point, and it became obvious to me that the art of ski-joering involves not only getting pulled by a dog at twenty miles and hour, but also making sure you can control the slack on the reins at those times when the dog takes a breather and you find yourself speeding ahead of him.

Finally the new set of racers was given a countdown. No gun was sounded. A man with a megaphone simply gave the word, and they were off. Most of them, anyway. A few ran into each other and tumbled into the icy snow, causing further difficulties for the competitors coming behind them.

Once most of the racers had disappeared around the bend, I wandered back the way I came, enjoying the smell of the wood fires burning in the plaza, admiring the stuffed waffles for sale at the food truck, then wandering through the beer tent, which was packed with skiers in tight blue and black ski suits emblazoned with brand names: Rossignol, Atomic, Fischer, Sisu.


Later than afternoon we drove to St. Paul. We had tickets for a concert at the Ordway Concert Hall, and arrived early because Hilary had spotted an item in the newspaper. The Original Coney Island Restaurant & Bar—the oldest commercial structure in either of the Twin Cities—would be opening its doors at 2 p.m. The building dates to 1858, and it's been a Coney Island restaurant since 1923. When I was a kid (back in the 1960s, that is) we used to ride the bus downtown and wander the streets, going to Musicland, Bridgeman's, Daytons, and occasionally the Coney Island, which was around the corner and halfway down the block. It seemed a little seedy even then to an impressionable fifteen-year-old, but the coneys were cheap.

The restaurant is still owned by the same Greek family who opened it in 1923, but it's been closed since 1994. In the last few years Mary Avanitis, who's now in charge of operations, has opened it on rare occasions for private parties and, even less often, to the public.

The place was lively when we arrived. I had anticipated a line stretching out the door, but we found a booth easily and walked up to the counter to order some coney islands. A waitress came by later to retrieve our plastic basket, and when I asked her if she was the owner, she sat down to chat. No, she wasn't the owner, but she and Mary had been friends since grade school. They had grown up on Watson Street, in one of the many St. Paul neighborhoods that I'd never heard of—and don't remember now. "People think of it as part of Highland, but it's not," she said.

A few minutes later Mary herself came by and joined us in the booth. She told us that they closed the restaurant because her brothers got sick and they weren't making money. Once the city forbade them to rent rooms upstairs to boarders, it was all downhill. "I can't even come out ahead on St. Patrick's Day," she said. She wasn't complaining, but it was obvious she enjoyed seeing customers in the place and would like to be open more often.

The Coney's were fine. And the juke box had offerings such as Dean Martin"s "That's Amore," Patsy Cline's "San Antonio Rose," and tunes by Jimmy Dorsey, Percy Faith, Enoch Light, and the Platters. No rock'n'roll in sight.

Back out on the street, we were immediately immersed in commotion. The Torchlight Parade had just passed by. Beer-drinkers were enjoying the bonfire pits at Great Waters Brewing, and romantic couples were slurping oysters next door at Meritage. A throng had wandered out into Rice Park where the battle between King Boreas and the Vulcans was about to commence. Most of the hoopla seemed to be taking place at the public library at the other end of the park, however. Flames were shooting twenty feet in the air, fireworks were exploring, and I could see quite a few Vulcans in their red outfits hanging around on the library steps.

We ran into the brother of King Boreas later in the upstairs lobby of the Ordway Theater. I forgot to ask him how the battle turned out. He gave me a button which I'm sure will be worth a lot of money some day. However, I gave it to a little girl who was passing by with her mother; she seemed to be more interested in costumed figures than I was.

The concert? The modern pieces were "interesting," due to the energetic performance of flautist Clare Chase and the deft Couperin arrangements by Thomas Ades, and the performance of Respighi's The Birds was delightful. As we left the hall, a Price cover band named Chase and Ovation was just wrapping things up out in the park. The only food booth still open was selling deep-fried cheese curds.

We passed the Coney Island joint on our way back to the parking ramp. Peering through the window, I saw Mary standing at the counter in the half-dark inside, doing a final tally with a pencil and paper. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Paterson - the Film

A bus driver named Paterson and his wife live in a small house with their English bulldog in Paterson, New Jersey. He walks to work every day carrying a metal lunchbox. She mostly stays home painting curtains, designing dresses, or baking cupcakes to sell at the local farmer's market. She's very sweet, not to mention beautiful. He's agreeable, soft-spoken. He walks the dog after dinner every night, hooking the little fellow up on a post along the sidewalk so he can go into a bar and drink a single beer, very slowly, while he chats with the bartender or whoever sits down beside him.

During the day he listens to conversations between the passengers sitting near the front of the bus. He also writes poetry in the Imagist style, inspired by the work of Paterson's most famous son, William Carlos Williams. He often starts a poem while sitting at the wheel of his bus, waiting for his route to start. He spends some time in the basement when he gets home from work, polishing.

She has a dream of purchasing a guitar she's seen advertised on TV, and maybe becoming a country-western star. She's never played the guitar, but stranger things have happened. He encourages her, though it's pretty clear money is tight. For her part, she encourages him to Xerox his book of poems. She thinks he should share his verses with the world.

Minor characters add variety to the scenario. Paterson's supervisor at the bus terminal has a litany of little complains to share each morning. The bartender has taken some money from his wife's cookie jar to enter a local chess tournament. A young woman at the bar is trying to dump her boyfriend, an actor who seems to be more in love with the drama of being in love than with her.

Anyone who's seen a Jim Jarmusch film will be familiar with the slightly stilted dialog. There are long gaps between remarks, while the interlocutors ponder what's just been said and come up with a thoughtful response. Although there are moments of danger, surprise, and anger scattered here and there, for the most part Paterson flows along like a gentle brook. And that allows the viewer to begin seeing the people, the city, the passing urban scene, and the domestic tranquility shared by the protagonists in the same poetic light as Paterson himself does. A sort of calm, slightly bemused wonder takes hold and grows, like lichen.    

It's remarkable to see a film like Paterson on the big screen—quiet, almost methodical, yet humming gently with quirky characters and unexpected incidental remarks.  It's a celebration of the quotidian, though such a word would never appear in one of Paterson's poems. As he writes, or recites, slowly, handwritten words appear across the screen. His voice carries a degree of sincerity, but it sounds as home-spun as the words themselves. 

Here's one of them.

Love Poem
We have plenty of matches in our house
We keep them on hand always
Currently our favorite brand
Is Ohio Blue Tip
Though we used to prefer Diamond Brand
That was before we discovered 
Ohio Blue Tip matches
They are excellently packaged
Sturdy little boxes
With dark and light blue and white labels
With words lettered
In the shape of a megaphone
As if to say even louder to the world
Here is the most beautiful match in the world
It's a one-and-a-half-inch pine stem
Capped by a grainy dark purple head
So sober and furious and stubbornly ready
To burst into flame
Lighting, perhaps the cigarette of the woman you love
For the first time
And it was never really the same after that

All this we will give you
That is what you gave me
I become the cigarette and you the match
Or I the match and you the cigarette
Blazing with kisses that smolder toward heaven

I haven't seen all that many films about poetry. The only ones that I can think of off-hand are a Korean film called Poetry and a biopic about Keats called Bright Star. Both are excellent.
Back home, I pulled a little volume of William Carlos Williams' selected poems off the shelf. (Paterson's wife calls him Carlos William Carlos for a little joke.) I've never been a big fan, but now that I've seen a few scenes from Paterson, I'm starting to like him better.