Minnesota, my home, has had its share of favorite sons and daughters. Fame is fleeting, however, especially in politics and the performing arts. There are a few "giants in the earth" who hail from this state, but among the most notable of these would be Charles Lindberg, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, and Sparky.
Sparky, of course, is the nickname of Charles M. Schulz, the creator of "Peanuts" and the most successful (at least monetarily) cartoonist of all time. His strips, known worldwide, were really little examinations of the human condition, never hilarious or outrageous, but thoughtful and although somewhat sad at times, always had an underlying optimism. David Michaelis' Peanuts and Schulz: A Biography, has just been released, in it he examines the darker side of the man, and how it was reflected in the strip. He was not, according to Michaelis, a happy man. But he did persevere, and worked until the end. He left Minnesota (they always do) for warmer days in California, finally settling in Santa Rosa, although he did bring his beloved ice hockey with him.
As a child, I read his strip until well into my teens. I wasn't as frustrated as Charlie Brown- I identified more with Linus, who also had a domineering big sister. I still read the reruns in the paper from time to time; who ever selects them does a pretty good job of picking the best.
All of the famous people I mentioned at the beginning of the post were (or still are) writers of one kind or another. Maybe it's the long, dark winters. Maybe it's the ten thousand lakes. Maybe it's the cows. What ever it may be, you done us proud, Sparky.
The Soaring Sixties
When the decade that started with the year 1960 began there were lots of "New" things happening: Satellites, lasers, folk music (huh?), jet air travel, the pill, transistor radios, and all sorts of new products (Tang! Tab! Fresca! Bugles! Chex Mix! Flubber!) to consume. The print media were full of articles on "What the Sixties Will Bring" with an emphasis on the positive. They even had a name for this enlightened new age- "The Soaring Sixties." The "Fabulous Fifties" had limped out with a cold war, recession, civil rights police riots, and a general sense of dread. Add to it the hang over from World War II and the Atomic Bomb, the Korean and Suez conflicts and the takeover of Cuba by a young revolutionary with the same name as a popular folding sofa-bed: Castro.
Onto this stage strode a precocious boy of ten, who had accelerated his learning curve by voraciously reading everything he could get his hands on: Mad Magazine, All About Books, the Encyclopedia, Tom Swift, and the daily news. Those papers were changing as well; new printing technology allowed them to insert glossy high quality color advertisements. This plucky lad absorbed all this, but didn't necessarily understand it fully. There was one ad campaign in particular which featured- full page in color- a picture of an attractive woman reading the newspaper- but the paper was covered with flowers instead of words. At the bottom of the ad it simply said: Modess Sanitary Napkins.
This imagery steeped in the young fellow's hyperactive imagination a few days. Sunday, at the dinner table, the boy thought that the place settings could use a little enhancement: "Why don't we get some of those sanitary napkins?"
Chaos ensued. Big Sister, fifteen at the time, thought this was the funniest thing she had ever heard, Mom desperately tried to keep a straight face, while Dad sputtered over his mashed potatoes.
The boy didn't know exactly what he had said to cause such a stir (and it wasn't explained to him) but he knew enough that he had crossed over one of those "invisible lines" of polite society, and he quickly let the matter drop. The next week, at the grocery store, he did some investigating and sort of figured out what a "Sanitary Napkin" (and its associated hardware) was, although he still couldn't quite grasp the why of it all. "Girls' stuff," he sniffed.
And that was the end of it...
... Until he was much older, when the story was repeated by his sister to each of his girlfriends.
The Weaver and I attended the new Walker Art Center exhibit "Frida Kahlo" yesterday, or should I say "surrendered to?" Her art is intriguing and provocative in reproductions, and is devastating in person. The story of her tumultuous life is well known (especially since Salma Hayek's vivid film biography in 2002) so much so that I almost wish that I was seeing her work without any prior knowledge of it, and certainly without an "Audiotour" with "Multimedia" (see above.)
She has been described as a "Surrealist", but perhaps "Metarealist" would be more accurate. There are no bounds between her inner and outer "realities", both physical and psychic. All aspects of her existence- her heritage, her suffering, her politics and her environment, interplay in an organic fashion, painted with tremendous skill and sensitivity. I am not often awed by art, but this does it for me.
The Weaver commented on the rendering of textiles on the paintings, and how they contributed to the works as a whole. In The Two Fridas, she presents herself- twice- wearing both traditional garb and a Victorian lace dress. The embroidery on the hem of the dress consists of scarlet flowers alternating with bloodstains, blood from the unstoppable injury she suffered from her divorce. In some paintings her inner organs, miscarriages and bones are made manifest, forcing the viewer to confront the entire reality of her being. These are not the images you see on refrigerator magnets and commemorative postage stamps.
Great art is said to speak universal truths. Frida Kahlo spoke volumes of truth about subjects that were previously ignored in art. This show will be traveling to Philadelphia and then on to San Francisco. See it if you possibly can, there are over fifty of her works, an exibition such as this may not happen again.
UPDATE: Another view on the exhibition.
Further On Down The Road
Some roads are a bit bumpier than others. Sometimes it's worth it, for the view and for the effort itself. You won't ever get there, you'll always be where you are, in the new here. Some roads are full of people, some are solitary. Some roads go around in a circle, eternal. Others stop at a terminus. Flippism: is the road traveling you? The space/time/matter that consists of you is here, the road rushes past, altered by your existence. Relativity made manifest. The "west" was American's manifest destiny.
"... Behind us lay the whole continent of America and everything Neal and I had previously known about life, and life on the road. We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed of the extent of the magic either... "
- Jack Kerouac, On The Road
On The Road - Revisited
On The Road - by Jack Kerouac - The Original Scroll
In this era of "director's cuts", sequels, mash-ups and deconstructions, there seem to be no end the the number of versions of art, performance and literary works. When the original manuscript of Kerouac's breakthrough novel was published this summer, it seemed a logical choice for my summer reading list. This is the legendary 120 foot-long scroll that Jack produced in three weeks in 1951. It is, with the real names of its characters restored, a non-fiction novel chronicling the road adventures of Kerouac and his "lost brother" Neal Cassady, with appearances by William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. It is a book of poetry and evil.
It seems that each new generation discovers this book, and a significant segment of them (the young men at least) emulate it. The whole "hippie" movement was kickstarted by this ethos-deprived saga; the idea of a search as an end in itself, without goals or consequences (which Kerouac lived to see and despise) would, at the minimum distract or, at the worst, destroy, the lives of millions. (Not that I'm not guilty of that!)
The writing, in a "stream of consciousness" style has been often copied (I'm guilty of that as well!) but seldom equaled. This version really rolls, just like Cassady's '49 Hudson, with neither chapters nor paragraphs to slow the momentum. The story is one of sadness, a tale of Jacks's longing for Neal, and the illusion of freedom Neal espouses.
It is almost a handbook on how to disconnect from humanity- furtive sex, drinking, drugs (guilty, guilty, guilty!) and because the road is main idea, there is no connection, no growth, only the next ride out of town.
Jack never grew up. He died at 47, of complications of alcoholism, still living with his mother.
At this point in time...
What I know:
There is a woman living on a rock in the middle of the ocean.
She has made some mistakes.
But she's done more things right.
She's changed herself for the better.
She's changed others for the better, as well.
She has widened the horizons of hundreds of people, all around the world.
And she perseveres.
For which I am grateful.
Kristín's Hair Day Revisited
My Icelandic correspondent Kristín's post about her "Hair Day" triggered a personal rumination on the sensitive topic of the effects of aging upon one's sartorial splendor. It is an aspect of one's appearance that time relentlessly alters. Less color in the hair, less lustrous hair, less hair, period. She commented on the difference between men and women with gray hair: the man gains appeal while the woman loses it.
And why would that be? A man's gray hair could signify that he would be at the height of his powers with wealth and influence- a desirable combination in a potential mate. In a woman it could indicate experience and the wisdom that accompanies it- not so desirable to a man who might want a partner he could dominate, one that would selflessly (naively?) sacrifice herself in his support. A woman's sexual attraction to a mature, confident man, rather than a irresponsible youth, might overcome the beauty of 'Venus as a boy'. Conversely, a man's hormones trump his intellect- 'Venus as a girl' is a myth firmly grounded in reality.
Of course there has always been the cosmetic option. Dyes, wigs or toupees can fool some of the people some of the time, it all depends on how much the actor one wishes to be.
My hair, what's left of it, is 95% gray. Assuming I'm clean-shaven and neatly dressed, yes, it does make a difference. I'm apparently more respectable than I used to be, people will initiate conversations with me (what their intentions are is another matter.) That this assumption on their part is wholly without merit is about the only benefit of the situation.
But it's the unwanted hair growing everywhere on me except my scalp, growing with increasing vigor as I age, that is the worst part of it all.
The naked ape? Not quite.
... I'm still waiting for an answer...
Tickle Me Emo
Valgeir Sigurðsson, Iceland Airwaves, 2006
In honor of the currently ongoing Iceland Airwaves I've been listening to Valgeir Sigurðsson's Ekvílibríum quite a bit; his deliberate, music-box compositions aren't everyones cup of tea, but I enjoy them in two different ways- either as a stimulating background or, more intensely, as a challenging ear-puzzle. What is puzzling to me, as it also was on Björk's tracks with 'Anthony' on the CD Volta, is the intrusion of wavering, uncertain vocals. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy (Will Oldham) and a 'J. Walker' perform the aural graffiti on this occasion. I have heard that this style of singing is called 'Emo', and has gained some traction in recent months. The track Kin, which was a high point of last year's Airwaves, is nearly sabotaged by Oldham's strangled vocalizations, in spite of a strong lyric.
A new trick for an old dog?
I wish I was here...
Today marks the beginning of Iceland Airwaves, and I must admit that I long to be going back. Even the worst acts last year had some memorable quirks, and the good ones were simply outstanding. The venues were inviting, the people were great, even the weather was fantastic.
I tried to rationalize my desires away:
You are too old (Another gray hair won't make a difference...)
It's too expensive (35 full sets of music and five days in Iceland for about a grand... that really isn't too bad...)
The bands aren't as good this year (no Apparat Organ Quartet, but múm will be playing...)
Nothing with replace the "first time" (virginity is overrated?)
I thought I had quenched my desires, but then came the heart-breaker:
I've written about Amiina before, and to be able to see them in this charming 19th century church by the pond might be just too much for this old heart to bear. The Jóhann Jóhannsson concert there last year was extremely inspirational; these women weave a magical spell that could only be enhanced by the setting. Here's hoping that it will be recorded for posterity in some form. Maybe, if they play again next year, I'll be able to catch the Airwaves, this time bringing the Weaver with me!
UPDATE: Amiina at Fríkirkjan video.
Beaver House Bait Shop, Grand Marais, Minnesota
Although large corporate chains have made inroads with "sportsman" megastores, the independent bait shop still thrives in in the lake districts. The Beaver House in Grand Marais is a quintessential example of the form, with a home-made decor and a complete line of original tackle. The tasteful exterior decor seduces the timid with a promise of "Beaver Flicks" within. They are not the x-rated videos
that those inclined toward the baser desires may surmise, but instead merely small lures comprised of a hook, a brightly colored spinning fin and a small float to keep it off the rocks. "Good for all fish! Guaranteed or your money back!" The friendly mien of the proprietor makes it easy to spend a few dollars (or more!) on these colorful gadgets. The whole shop is an explosion of color, with the plastic wrappers refracting light in a thousand ways- there is a definite "aura" about the place. This is a family operation, and as close to folk art in a retail setting as you'll ever see. Grand Marais has been "upscaling" in recent years, I hope that the "Beaver House" will be spared that fate...
... or, There's something about Jane.... The film's actual title: The Jane Austen Book Club, a pleasant Saturday afternoon's diversion for the Weaver and me(even if the ticket-seller gave us "senior" admission prices seven years too early, but what the heck! I'll swallow a little pride for four bucks... ) The film concerns five women and one fish-out-of water man who form a book club which only reads Jane Austen while undergoing Austenesque life-dramas themselves. The plot's premise is a bit thin (a computer nerd is recruited to facilitate the boosting of the self-esteem of a woman whose 20+ year marriage has just been shattered) but it is only an excuse to set the whole thing in motion. This movie has a great ensemble cast; if at times the screenplay seems a bit shaky the characterizations are solid and consistently note-perfect.
But this is not a review.
Rather, what is it that makes these kind of movies compelling to me? No car crashes or explosions or gunshots certainly helps (Jane Austen's Deadly Persuasion II - its payback time!); there is a quickly reached limit for that kind of violence-porn on my part. I've seen more than a few "Chick Flicks" (Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, The Women, most of the recent Austen-based films), and I find that the "secret" lives of women (which are really more about subtlety than secrecy) and the way women interact and deal with each other and the opposite sex endlessly fascinating. If I'm the only man in the theater, so be it. It is a shame to cut off half the human experience, especially in literature and the arts.
The ending of Book Club was a bit weak- happiness for everybody, a bit too tidy especially in light of how the club itself made a point of stressing how "messy" love was, and how Jane Austen herself never fully consummated a relationship. But, also like the end of Austen's novels, the "ever-after" part is not shown, only the "happy."
Burn Area, Gunflint Trail
The wind was up but it had shifted, coming from the east now, a tailwind that would blow us out of the BWCAW in just a few hours. Saving the best for last we negotiated a portage nearly two-thirds of a mile in length with over 200 feet of elevation. An East wind usually portends bad weather and today would confirm that trend. We had just gotten the canoe on top of the car when it started to rain. It was only noon so we stopped and ate at the The Trail Center Cafe, which held the first people we had seen since Tuesday morning. Afterwards, we drove up to the end of the Gunflint where this summer's fires had raged. The usually hidden bedrock had been burned clean of its mossy coat; the pink granite surrounded with charred trees gave the scene a surreal look. But the plants had already started their return- millions of blueberry plants augur a bumper crop next summer, birch seedlings had grown a foot or more, and beneath them the jack pine seeds, freed from their cones by the heat of the fires, sprouting as well.
We headed back down the trail, to a soggy Grand Marais where we checked in at the Mangy Moose Motel (really!) and our wilderness experience was over.
Paddling the Royal River
This day's canoeing effort, into a stiff headwind, brought to mind the metaphor of life as "paddling upstream." I realize that all my working efforts of late are just a way of keeping up; I'm not really getting anywhere. Furthermore, the rest of my life will be more of the same, rest is not an option; it is too easy to fall back into idleness and lethargy, which would have been a relatively harmless diversion when I was young, but is poison now. Use it or lose it. Three more portages, albeit minor ones, and three solid hours of fighting the whitecaps delivered us to a beautiful campsite, with an air temperature in the mid sixties. The wind died down for our supper, once again exhaustion curtailed any reading in the tent. About four in the morning, I heard the wind pick up again, it looked as if I would be facing another trial in the morning...
Room With A View
The further I got from civilization, the more thoughts of an accidental demise clouded my mind. All I had between me and a watery grave was a 45 pound plastic shell. OK, it was a high-tech Kevlar™ canoe, but still, 40° water induces hypothermia in about 10 minutes. Or a miss-step on a mossy rock during a portage could cause me to crack my head. Or perhaps I would suffer a heart attack? Or a BEAR ATTACK!?
Calm down, Batty. Your drive to the area had more inherent danger than this trip. Nevertheless, after a day of four portages and as many lakes, the phrase "dead tired" made perfect sense. That night, after a delicious fresh fish dinner (caught by my son) my sleep was once again interrupted; this time it was a more mundane call of nature which roused me. The moon was high over head and about ten degrees to the north of its position a strange bright light shone steadily through the scudding clouds. Was it a supernova? A UFO? Or was it The Shining Light, that glow that would lead me back to my creator?
I'll never know, but I do know this: I'm not going yet.
East Pike Lake
Stillness reigns, both inside and out. The rhythm of the paddling becomes established. The monkey within chatters less now, and the amount of words spoken aloud diminishes as well. The cold, clear water is a smooth highway, all we have to do is keep in motion. We pass a few campers- fishermen- and meet a couple of guys during a portage- fishermen as well. In the evening the leaden skies start to leak, by the time dinner is over it is pouring. Our tent is dry, I've got my book and I read a bit, but the steady thrum of the rain on the canopy over our tent is hypnotic, I fall asleep, this night no dreams will trouble my slumber...
Clearwater Lake, BWCAW
Leaving at dawn, the eldest son and I hit the road, ending up on highway 61, the highway of legend- from Dylan's lament to Robert Johnson's crossroads, to New Orleans. We go nearly to the other end, turning off at Grand Marais, going WNW up the Gunflint Trail and entering the chilly pure water of Clearwater Lake, with some scenic bluffs overlooking our sleek Kevlar canoe, loaded with the gear for a week away from the world of everyday existence. The "real world" or is this the real one? Take your pick. The eldest explains the geology that is laid out like a textbook illustration for us. We portage 211 rods to West Pike Lake, find a campsite, and have a meal of Moroccan lamb bratwurst. My thoughts haven't quite cleared, sleep is fitful that night, the next day will take us further...
Amanita Muscaria, P. Batticus
I have returned with life and weary limb intact. More to follow...